Old Shoes and Old Boats

By Tom Neale, 11/5/2012


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Someone once told me that an old boat is like an old shoe. Not quite. True, the more you wear it, the better it feels. And you can use duct tape on both to help hold them together and help keep the water out. But after a point, the analogy loses steam, as when you try to tie a parted halyard back together like an old shoe string. Another difference is that the old shoe has usually gained its years on your own foot, not somebody else’s–and certainly not on a long series of other feet. But perhaps the most important difference is that old shoes are seldom full of dreams of a brand new future. Old boats are. The trick is to make the dreams work. I’ve had lots of old boats over the years, the oldest being a nicely ripening semi sunk log canoe that I found floating in the river back in the 50's. Someone had added a one lung diesel, the oil from which had blended so thoroughly into the soft wood it slowed the rotting process. My most recent old boat is the one I’m sitting in today. She’s been around since 1975 but, unlike my old tennis shoes, she’s not merely getting to be a better fit every day; she’s getting better every day.

Chez Underway, Heading for Sea.
When I first got this Gulfstar 53 motorsailer, I knew she fit like a good old shoe. She felt very good. But I knew that there would have to be one key word for the reconstruction: “Prioritize.” Without that, there is no future in making an old boat better; only a hopeless jumble of present nightmares. For example, you generally want to stop the water coming in from the bottom before you turn to the job of stopping the water coming in from the decks. But we started with the decks. The first tropical storm I spent aboard (shortly after I bought her) was like living in an enclosed rain forest. I learned something very quickly. I wouldn’t have to worry about putting out fires. Now we’ve added all new ports and rebedded stanchions and caulked seams so that we’re thinking about installing a sprinkler system to keep the dust down. The strangest job was dealing with the water in the engine room. The “leak” was like Starbucks coffee: fresh and hot. The fact that it also looked like coffee threw me for a while, until I learned that the steady stream trickling from the bottom of the hot water heater was running through a flood plain composed of years of muck where nobody had cleaned behind the generator. The “fix” exemplified well the unexpected benefits of bringing back an old boat. We replaced the water heater which stopped the water flow. Then we cleaned up the muck and found enough stainless steel screws lying back there to open a West Marine.

Tom at the Helm of his New Old Boat.
There’s more to fixing things when you buy an old boat. A high priority is to check for cockroaches. I didn’t see any, but I did see lots of big cockroach hotels. These would have made me feel better, I suppose, but they were all turned upside down, and several were crushed. And we never did see any cockroaches. I suppose this is because they ate everything they could, stomped the hotels in anger, and left the boat to find better dining.

Whenever you get an old boat you normally have a grand plan of “fixing it up.” You start out thinking about the money you’re saving but that soon turns to myth as the dollars trickle away. We had to fix up our old boat pretty quickly because it was where we lived. It was like tying your shoe laces while you’re walking. You’re either tripping over your job or you’re afraid you’re going to lose what you’re working on. But if you keep the faith and do it right, you create from the past a boat that you can be proud of and that--and this is a really important part--you know how to fix when it breaks, because you fixed it from scratch in the first place. And if you’ve been fixing up old boats all your life, as I have, you get a really good feeling about what you now have.

One great feature of fixing up an old boat is that no matter how inferior you feel, you can always criticize the mistakes of the former owners, none of whom are there to dispute you. I saw an old boat once that had duct tape covering the hot terminals on the back side of the shore power inlet, a bare copper propane line passing close to the exposed positive battery terminal and then wavering over the gasoline engine block, and wires “insulated” from other wires by clothes pins holding them off. The bilges, however, were nicely painted. My bilges weren’t painted but I didn’t have propane lines ready to arc out on battery posts either. This sort of thing makes me feel good about my old boat, both because I know she wasn’t as bad off as many others and because of the things we’ve done, and done right.

Tom’s Tips for Making Old Boats Better

1. Safety items should be top priority. Often one of the first of these is to make a wiring diagram and replace bad wiring. These two often go hand in hand.

2. Look for a boat that’s in good enough condition that you can use and enjoy it as you fix it up. Don’t put yourself through years of self denial.

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For example, we still have the beautiful polished stainless steel dinghy davits to launch the tender, but we also have a nice hydraulic dinghy lift that also serves as a swim platform and loading elevator for those times when I can’t climb over the side. Now we have a new hydraulic steering ram that doesn’t leak, and a bow thruster which I used to swear I’d never have but now hope I’ll never be without. We replace the mainsail, fixed the foresail furling gear, replaced the engine with a 200 HP Yanmar, added an all weather cockpit enclosure, replaced electronics, added a very high quality inverter/charger as well as a backup charger, added a smart regulator for the engine alternator, replaced heads, added two Lectra/Sans and two holding tanks, rebuilt the 12 KW generator business end, beefed up the anchor platform, replaced the windlass with a horizontal dual capstan super tough one, replaced much wiring, added a 15 gallon per hour RO water maker…. and it goes on and on. Finally there comes a time when you’re not fixing up an old boat anymore, you’re just maintaining your boat, one that has, without you’re really noticing it, become nearly perfect because it’s the way you want it. And you know it’s far tougher than most new boats because boats were build that way, way back then.

Unfortunately, your new old boat doesn’t regain its value as though it were new. Boats on the market don’t seem to do that. But you know what it’s worth to you, and that’s what counts. If I had the money, sure, I’d buy a new boat. But the fact that I don’t have the money doesn’t mean that I can’t go cruising on a good boat. And now it’s time for me to sell that great old boat, to get one smaller and faster. Somebody out there will get a really good deal and I’ll get to start all over again.



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