For Boat Restorers

Halfway through my boat restoration, one day I happened to be outside a storage facility, the kind where most of the units are inside-access only but some of the units on ground level have outside, garage-door entry. In one of those garage-style bays I thought I saw the front of an airplane, so I walked over to investigate. Sure enough, it was an airplane, nearly complete. The owner was there, and he told me he had started the project in his basement but as it progressed his wife made him move it out, which he only reluctantly admitted to her was an excellent idea roughly about the time he got to the wing assembly. I told him I was very impressed with his work, that his project was much more challenging than mine. We both agreed that yes, once was enough, never again. Then he said something like, “Well, y’know, I’ve been catching myself saying, ‘Next time, this’ and ‘Next time, that,’ and it occurred to me that I could build a second airplane in half the time it took to do this one. The learning curve, finding the proper tools, figuring out how to actually get things done, all of it: I know I could do it all more easily now. So maybe, maybe I will build another airplane. But not too soon, that’s for sure.”

Restoring, rejuvenating, rehabbing, reviving, rebuilding a boat is a fine thing to do, a fine way to spend your time, a much, much more rewarding activity than watching TV, no doubt about it. Also, no matter how much work you estimate it to be, it will require more. Much more. Always. That’s the rule.

BE CAREFUL when buying a project boat! Even when the boat is a reasonable project – when it is still much more of a boat than it is a pile of junk – if you’re taking it on only to save money, think again. Yard storage fees, yard work fees (for things you can not do safely yourself, like taking down the mast), decent tools, and your time (which no, is NOT free), parts and materials, etc: it all adds up. And, because the number of D.I.Y. yards decreases every year, you may have to drive a distance to work on your boat. Every boat restorer I’ve ever met has mentioned going through the same process: in the beginning, he’s kept all his receipts so he could calculate the total cost of reviving the boat, but at some point he turns to throwing away the receipts immediately because he doesn’t want to know how much cash he’s invested. There’s a joke among old-boat sailors, y’know, that the only sailing record left to conquer is not a circumnavigation, not a speed, not a distance, not a difficult passage: it’s finishing a boat rebuild on time and on budget.

This is not to say it isn’t worth doing. Rebuilding my boat has been one of the most satisfying pieces of work I’ve ever done in my entire life. Yes, you read that right: rebuilding my boat has been one of the most satisfying pieces of work I’ve ever done in my entire life. Since doing mine, I feel like I can do almost anything.

Just be clear on what you want out of the project. If it’s to have a boat you know inside and out, fine; if it’s to have a boat to cruise the Bahamas once before you have kids, you’re probably much better off spending another 5 or 10 K$ up front and taking the cruise, making the cruise, instead of working on a project boat for a year or two or three. While you’re sweating on the project, you’ll spend 20 K$ in apartment rent, and maybe the circumstances of your life will change in ways that are pretty much out of your control (family / health / tempting job offers) or only partially under your control (gaining or losing a spouse / etc.) (Guess how I know about this?) If you want to go cruising, buy a cruise-ready or nearly-cruise-ready boat and go. Of course you should know how to repair and maintain your boat, but what do you want to be, a marine carpenter or a cruising sailor?

(Note: remember the idea of buying a decent boat while waiting for a great boat to show up? If you have a little trailerable daysailer, you’ll learn about boat maintenance and repair, especially if you make friends with your marina mates. Sail small for a year or two, build up your cruising kitty, then go!)

One time, ya, after band camp, when I was working on my boat on the hard, I walked down to the marina office where there was a soda machine and, in the shade of the office and right next to the boat launch ramp, a “Bench of Wisdom.” I found Bob there, 67 years old, covered in boat dirt and unintentionally napping in the summer heat. I sat down next to him, and after he stirred and came back into his head, he told me, “I’ve been thinking all day about what is it about boats that makes a man willing to work so hard for something that most of us just don’t get that much use out of, just some weekends over the summer.”

Any theories?

“Well, just one. Taking into account all of history – how so many civilizations grew up near the sea – and how everyone knows of Capt. Bligh, and literature like Moby Dick, and how so many sailing terms have become common expressions even if the user doesn’t know the origin (like 3 sheets to the wind), all of it, everything I can think of, it all comes down to just one explanation. It has to be because we’re all,” – and here he moved his hands in front of him, like he was trying to physically grasp and wrestle the words – “we’re all some kind of . . . . . . stupid!”

We laughed and laughed at ourselves, but only because there was certainly an element of truth to his conclusion. Remember, no one, but no one, ever becomes a sailor because it is convenient.

I know a guy who used to work in a small boat factory, where his boss taught him, “Look! We’re not making boats, and we’re not selling boats! We’re packaging and selling dreams!” I’m not trying to scare you away from rebuilding a project boat; I’m trying to give you a little perspective from the World of Reality. Okay, maybe, ya, I am trying to scare you a little. But if my words make you run, rebuilding a boat is not for you, and I’ve just saved you a lot of time and money (that you’re welcome to send to me, btw!) Don’t trust my opinion alone: go down to a few marinas and walk the docks and yards and look at all the boats and broken dreams languishing there. Then avoid getting sucked into that whirlpool.

So, if you’re dreaming of a voyage, COMMIT to it. Make it happen. Otherwise the boat will go mostly unused and you’ll have spent (not invested; spent) a LOT of time, energy, and money on it. And the dream will be delayed and possibly slowly destroyed. COMMIT to your dream, and make it happen before something else in your life changes and gets in your way. (If you recognize this paragraph as probably the most important idea anywhere on this website, you just might be an actual cruising sailor!)

For Someday-Sailors . . .