Buying a fixer-upper

By Jack Brennan
Shanachie, 1974 Bristol 30
Tierra Verde, Fl.

There are plenty of old Bristol sailboats sitting around in boat yards and back yards in various stages of disrepair, sometimes at rock-bottom prices.

So, should you buy a fixer-upper?


When the cabin looks like this, run, don’t walk, away from the boat.

Sure, that sailboat down at the end of the yard looks scruffy. But how much could it cost to fix it up and get it back in the water? After all, the hull is solid. The mast is like a tree trunk. The engine just needs a tune-up after not running for a couple of years.

Pay $3,000 for the boat, sink another thousand into it and add a few improvements now and then, when you have the cash. After all, you’re handy. You don’t need to hire mechanics and yard workers at $80 per hour for jobs you can do yourself.

I have just one bit of advice for you: Think long and hard about it. Sure, It’s doable. But it takes a major commitment of time and cash to make it happen.

A sailboat requires constant maintenance to be seaworthy. Usually, a couple to many thousands of dollars a year, depending on the size of the boat.

But a significant number of boat owners of all types don’t do the maintenance, either because they don’t want to spend the money or because they rarely use the boat.

Over a few years, the list of uncorrected problems begins to grow. When a sailboat reaches middle age, the list can be immense.

I once saw a sailboat ad in which a clever seller said: “Rare find. All original equipment.” This on a 40-year-old sailboat.

So let’s take a look at what’s really involved in bringing a neglected sailboat back to life.

Standing rigging: You would be surprised at how many old sailboats have the original wires holding up the mast. The only reason the mast hasn’t gone overboard is that the owners never sailed in more than 10 knots of wind and went out 10 times a year. It needs to be replaced. The cost: $2,000 for a boat 30 feet or less, growing by thousands as the boat gets larger. You can save some money by ordering new rigging and installing it yourself with the mast down.

Sails: You would also be surprised at how many boats have the original sails. They are so stretched they look like dome tents. A boat will never sail properly with them. You can buy a used main and jib for $1,000 or so on a boat 30 feet or less, with the price rising as the boat gets bigger. New ones start at about $2,500.

Cabin cushions: When was the last time you saw plaid anything? That’s a sure sign your cabin cushions are 30 or 40 years old. But they look fine, you say? OK. Think about this. People have been sleeping and sweating and spilling things on these cushions for 40 years. Would you sleep in a bed where the sheets hadn’t been changed in 40 years? Enough said. The cost: $3,000 or more, unless you know how to sew.

The inboard engine: Let’s say the inboard engine runs fine. When was the last time the hoses were changed? The impeller? The belts? Does the packing on the prop shaft need changing? How about the stuffing box hose? My bet is that it’s 40 years old and could split any day, possibly sinking your boat. Figure somewhere between $300 and $1,000. If the engine is shot, you can replace an Atomic 4 gasoline engine with a rehabbed model for about $5,000 or buy a new diesel for $8,000 and on up – way up, in some cases. Please don’t put an outboard on the stern and leave the derelict engine in the hull.

The outboard engine: Outboards are a pain to work on. Most of us give up and haul it to a mechanic. Where I live in Florida, tune-ups start at about $300 and can go way, way up.

Electrical wiring: Want to know where boat manufacturers cut costs? They wired your sailboat with untinned wire, sometimes solid copper wire. Over 30 or 40 years, the copper wire goes bad. It needs to be replaced. At least most of it, if not all of it. You also have to deal with decades of owners adding electrical equipment with lamp cord, connecting devices directly to the battery and piling four devices on one fuse. A new electrical panel with more fuses makes a lot of sense. The cost if you do it yourself: several hundred dollars, thousands if you hire someone.

The 110-volt system: I almost guarantee that this system will be dangerous on a 40-year-old sailboat. If it is, you run the risk of being electrocuted. Buy one of Don Casey’s books and do it right, or try to hire someone who won’t fleece you. Several hundred to several thousand dollars.

The water system: Many sailboats were built with fiberglass water tanks. They also used clear plastic hoses that were not rated for drinking water, meaning that you could be ingesting all sorts of nasty toxins every time you quench your thirst. Also, after 40 years, these water lines are usually blackened with scuzz. You have a number of options: Bring plenty of beer and sodas. Or install a modern water tank, probably flexible, and replace the lines with bendable PEX pipe from your local home improvement store. Use the fiberglass tank for wash-up water or convert it to storage.The cost: Maybe $500.

Electronics: Your boat was built back in the days when sailors used sextants, paper charts and dead reckoning. You at least need a handheld GPS at $250 or so. Lots of folks like chart plotters so they can spend all of their time looking at a computer screen, just like they do at home and work. You also need to replace any broken instruments such as depth sounders. The cost: $250 on up to several thousand.

Running rigging: If your boat has wire halyards, there’s an excellent chance that they are original to the sailboat. They need to be changed. If an old halyard breaks, you will have to climb the mast to replace it. That’s tough to do when you don’t have a safe halyard to use. The cost: several hundred dollars for double-braid polyester halyards to maybe a thousand for super low-stretch line such as spectra.

Painting: The hull and deck are going to be tired. Wealthy sailors pay a boat yard many thousands of dollars to spray their hulls and decks with Awlgrip or a similar two-part paint. You will probably roll and tip Brightside or maybe Rustoleum Marine paint onto the hull during your next haul-out for $100 or so, with a lot of elbow grease. For the deck, nonslip Kiwigrip is the best choice, at $150 per gallon.

Deck leaks: Old boats have all sorts of dribbles and gushers. Start with the chainplates. Good-quality butyl tape works well. Those expensive marine sealants, less so. Don’t use silicone; Paint won’t stick anywhere silicone has been. This will cost you a lot of time, but a small amount of money.

That’s because there are fittings all over your deck, and chances are that many or even all of them have not been rebedded in 20, 30, even 40 years. Even if the sealant was applied properly, chances are that it’s long gone. Here’s an excellent link on how to do it properly.

Rotten deck core: Those deck leaks will pump moisture into the balsa/plywood cores that are in most sailboats, turning them to mush. Every old sailboat has a few spots like this, and I personally don’t think small delaminated areas are much to worry about on well-built sailboats. But if the areas are large, and the decks are spongy, there is a lot of work to be done. Many dozens of hours of work or thousands of dollars: Take your choice.

Hull-deck leaks: First off, I’ll say that most old sailboats — and many newer ones — will drip at the hull-deck joint in some places in some conditions, particularly when the seas and weather are rough.

What you’re looking for are leaks that never stop. Place paper towels under the joint throughout the boat and then shoot a hose on the outside of the boat for a few minutes, concentrating on the joint. Wait a few minutes, then look for wet towels.

What can be done? Often, the hull and deck joint has butyl tape as a sealant. Tightening nuts a turn or two around the leaks many times will stop them. Other people use runny epoxy or Capt. Tolley’s Creeping Crack Cure along the toerail, hoping it will seep into the leaky sections.

If that fails, you may be looking at removing the toerail, a big job because there are usually bolts every six inches or so all the way around the boat. You’ll want to think long and hard about buying a boat with major hull-deck leaks.

Rotten bulkheads: When an owner allows major leaks to persist for years, a boat sometimes ends up with rotten bulkheads. These interior walls are what hold the boat in its proper shape. Also, the chainplates that hold up the mast often are bolted to them. This is another major job, requiring carpentry and fiberglassing skills, that seriously reduces the value of a boat and may be a cause to reject it altogether.

Batteries: They’re likely old and weak and need to be replaced for several hundred dollars. If you want to be safe, you’ll also follow the instructions in Don Casey’s book and fuse them near the battery to prevent the possibility of fires.

Lifelines: Most likely, these will be original to the boat and very breakable if you are actually thrown into them in rough seas. Which would not be good, because you would then be overboard. You can replace them with stainless steel wire for several hundred dollars or use high-tech line, the latest trend, for as much or more money.

This list is just the beginning. Every old sailboat has its particular set of woes. You will even find some old sailboats with ripped-up interiors and piles of parts from someone who never finished his refit. Run, don’t walk, from those boats.

The lesson here is that the value of a sailboat is in the details. A well-kept vessel may be worth three, four, even five times as much as a neglected sailboat. Don’t worry about bragging rights — I bought this boat for 3K! — so much as how much money you will spend on the refit.

If you’re still thinking of buying a fixer-upper, my advice is to spend the money for a good surveyor and tell him you want a thorough list of even the small problems.

Once you have a repair list, take a walk through West Marine and start pricing the items you need. If you have a heart condition, take your pills with you. The prices for boat items are absolutely staggering.

Buying a fixer-upper is a labor of love. You will know how to fix everything when you are done, you will know how each job was done and, most importantly, you will have the sailboat you want.

On the other hand, it’s often a lot less expensive to buy someone else’s sailboat AFTER they have fixed it up.