For Someday Sailors

You love the idea of sailing over the horizon but you’ve either never sailed anything at all or you’ve sailed only a dink or two and that was decades ago, and now you’re getting around to pursuing a long-held dream of a cruise to paradise. Good news: you’re not alone!

Let me guess . . . you don’t want to charter a boat for a week or two every year; you want to own a boat, have it be part of your life and maybe even your identity . . . you’ll get a fixer-upper, and by the time she’s ready to go on your dream voyage, you’ll have learned how to sail and navigate . . . or maybe you’ll buy a boat in the spring, practice sailing and navigating over the summer, and then, in the fall, after hurricane season, head out into the Caribbean . . .

Okay, let’s get started!

I understand completely about wanting to own a boat and be her skipper. I do, after all, not only own my boat, I live on her as well! So, yes, I understand. When I go out on other people’s boats, sometimes I do wonder about the rigging or the gear or the general readiness of the boat, and yes, sometimes I do wonder about the skipper, too! It is widely accepted that signing on as crew can be great fun and it can be hell. (I have seen delivery crew throw their duffel bags onto the pier and nearly run away from the boat before it was even completely tied up, swearing warnings about the skipper to anyone who was within earshot.)

The reason most of us want our own boat and want to be our own skipper is because part of the dream, the vision of paradise, is being in control of your own little world. You have no dreams of being some kind of god that controls the world’s weather, but you do dream of being in control of what to do with the weather, of being the one who decides to haul anchor or not, to shorten the sails and keep going or drop anchor and fix a cup of coffee. Tell me that’s not an important part of the dream: control – but never complete, inhuman mastery – of your own fate. That’s a solid, reasonable, admirable goal for any man or woman in today’s confusing world.

Also in today’s confusing world, there are some pesky things such as legal liability and insurance. Here’s something you need to know: boat insurance does NOT work like car insurance. Newbie car drivers just sign up and pay a little more, so it’s the same for newbie boat owners, right? NOPE. A lot of boat insurers simply do not want to touch you even with a ten-foot pole.

The solution? Three tactics:

1. If you can, add your boat to your car or house policy. Coverage varies greatly.

2. Get boating certification from the Coast Guard Auxiliary and accredited sailing schools. Boat insurance companies will ask for your “sailing resume.”

3. Go without insurance.

In addition to the financial risk, here’s the problem of going without insurance: nearly all marinas require a minimum amount of liability insurance, even for transient slips. You’re there for one night, passing through, and you’re boat catches fires and melts the fiberglass boats on either side: who pays? Why should they?

Another big difference between car and boat insurance is coverage area. Of course, car insurance rates differ according to area (there are more things to hit, and to be hit by, in New York City than anywhere in South Dakota.) However, if you live in South Dakota and drive your car into New York City, you’re still covered. Boat insurance policies will specify where and when the policy is valid, most often in relation to hurricane zones and seasons. So, even if you have liability insurance on your good ol’ boat and you sail south of Norfolk before November 1st and then you bump into another boat and scratch the paint, guess what? At the end of October Norfolk fills up with “snowbirds”, and on November 1st they follow each other down the Intracoastal Waterway like a long line of huge, mechanical ducks. Beginning November 1st, per the insurance companies.

Beside liability, boaters’ other big concern is loss coverage. If your good ol’ boat – through no fault of your own, of course – sinks, without insurance you’re out 10 or 20 K$, which is certainly a kick in the pants, but you’ll live. If your brand new, factory fresh boat sinks, somebody just lost at least $100K, so, since there are less boat owners than house or car owners to share the risk, expect to pay some serious premiums. Now, here’s the hilarious thing about boat value per boat surveys: there’s a bit of a difference between estimated value and replacement value. On the same piece of paper, surveyors (obviously in some kind of nefarious relationship with insurance companies) will write that your boat’s replacement value is $100,000 AND that your good ol’ boat is worth only $10,000. Hmmmm. The take-away lesson? Do NOT sink or otherwise destroy your boat!

Speaking of boat surveys, understand that they are somewhat useless. You may be required by your insurance company to get one (probably not if you’re adding it to your house policy, but check the coverage!), and a lot of people include a passing-grade survey as a contingency of their buy offer, but for the most part, surveys are useless and expensive (at least $20 per foot.) The thing is, most surveys do not check anything you can’t check yourself. You can get a moisture meter to check the decks and hull for wetness (indicating core rot); you can inspect the electrical system; etc. Typically surveyors will NOT include a trip up the mast to check the spreaders and out-of-reach fittings, and typically they will NOT include a thorough inspection of the engine (most sellers don’t want somebody taking apart their engine anyway.) They’ll fill out an automated report that tells you your boat isn’t safe to use because your electrical panel is missing a label, but they won’t mention whether or not your masthead is about to fall apart. I’m convinced it is a bit of a racket.

So, how do you know what to look for? Remember that idea of buying a decent little boat, maybe a little trailerable daysailer, while you learn about boat maintenance and repair . . . and suitable marinas, boat insurance, etc.?

Oh, and don’t forget to make sure you have a place to put your boat once you buy it. That’ll probably require insurance, which will probably require some accreditation and experience, so . . . if you’re dreaming of going sailing someday, maybe you should start preparing today.