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How Old Is Too Old For A Boat

By Tom Neale, 10/7/2014


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How old is too old for a boat? Buying an old boat may be the only option for you or the best option. A boat's age isn't the sole criteria. Let's look at a more complete picture.

My current "Chez Nous" was launched in 1975. She's fiberglass. Some would say she's old. Let them. What do they know? She's tugging at her line ready to get underway as I write this. She's a Gulfstar 53' motorsailer.

Set screws
Cut out from Chez Nous' hull.

I had wanted to own her from the day they built her, but I couldn't begin to afford her then. She was a new boat then. So today I look at her teak, and see some of it worn thin by years of cleaning and varnishing and weathering in the tropical sun. I look at the gel coat on her decks and see some surface cracks where someone dropped an anchor or dropped a hammer. They don't bother me. I could fix them all if I wanted to, but why bother. They're just cosmetic. And I know what's underneath. And this gets to whether an old boat is too old. If you don't need the bling, you've got a lot more to choose from when you're getting a boat. I'm planning to sell my old boat soon because it's time for me to get a smaller planning trawler. But I'll be looking for another old boat. Here's why.

Some years back I cut a nice big hole in the side of "Chez Nous," up near the gunwale. It was to accommodate a porthole so that Mel, my wife, and I could look out at the water while lying in bed. I knew that this would give us a lot of pleasure and I certainly didn't think this was going to be a big deal. This area of a fiberglass boat's hull is usually relatively thin. I knew. I'd seen plenty of boats in the process of being built, plenty on the reef and plenty in the wrecking yards. And I'd sawed holes in plenty of other boats. Boy was I wrong.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Old Boats

1. Are there hull sections that you can examine that have been cut out for thru-hulls or port holes? Are there indications in those sections of voids or poor layup? Knowledgeable tapping can also help.

2. Is there room on the boat to add things that may not have been required when it was built? An issue that quickly comes to mind is space for a holding tank and/or an onboard treatment system.

3. Look for component weaknesses that are likely to occur because of age. How expensive will it be to fix this and how important is it? Crevice corrosion in stainless steel is an example. It occurs in stainless when there's water but the water isn't moving thus there's little oxygen. If you're looking at an old sailboat (or maybe not so old) you should assume that there's some crevice corrosion in the rigging and factor in a survey for this and replacements of parts if necessary. But that cost may be insignificant when you consider the cost of a new boat.

4. Beware of old black iron tanks. There will probably be leaks if not now then in the near future. These tanks can sometimes be repaired if there's access, but sometimes they must be replaced, perhaps involving cutting a hole in the side of the hull. A boat with this sort of problem may be too old even for the most nostalgic of us.

5. Much has been said of the wonderful old slow turning diesels that seem to chug along forever. But they do fail, and sometimes it's extremely expensive to get the part for a very old engine. An old boat can have a new engine. Sometimes that's the best of both worlds.

6. Does that old boat you're thinking about have a known pedigree? Like an old Mako or Boston Whaler or one of many others that people widely know and love? If so, and if it turns out that you don't like it, you'll probably find it easier to sell.

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I began to realize how wrong I was immediately when I started drilling the beginning hole. I drilled and I drilled and I drilled. I had to change bits three times. It was like drilling for oil in China, except sinking the hole in Ft. Lauderdale. That hull was unbelievably thick and solid. Sure, fiberglass destroys bits and blades. But I've drilled lots of fiberglass boats and I know that you can usually count on lots and lots of pockets, some big, some small. You can also usually count on voids in the laminate and areas of zero to little resin impregnation. While these don't give you a lot of confidence in your hull, they sure make the job easier. But I didn't find any of these nice little bonuses when I sunk the hole. And I didn't find a single one anywhere in the cut ... which took a very long day instead of the hour that I had anticipated. The hull was not only thick, it was unbelievably solid. I saved the cutout piece, just to remind me, knowing that it had come from an area which was probably one of the thinnest areas of the hull. I couldn't believe the hull of "Chez Nous." But I shouldn't have been surprised, because I'd visited the Gulfstar yard in St. Petersburg back in the day. I saw that they were building boats as if they weren't sure about fiberglass. So they were overbuilding in many respects. They were making some mistakes, but so does everyone.

I've visited more than one facility where they build modern new sail and power boats. I've seen hull sections so thin that I could take my finger and flex the entire area of the hull. I've seen hulls so thin that, in areas where there was no gel coat or paint, daylight shone through like it was a dirty window. It's important to note that many of these thin hulls include material, such as Kevlar, that's much tougher in many respects than good ol' fiberglass. It's also important to note that there are many very fine and very tough new boats being built today. But there's a lot to be said for the tough thick old hulls.

Some worry about soft deck coring in old boats. This is caused by water seeping into the coring over the years through screw holes and the like. Many an old boat has been rejected by a disappointed buyer because of that infamous sound of the thump as the surveyor taps around, almost sure that he'll find some soft coring simply because the boat is old. But this may not be a good reason to rule out a boat. The coring on "Chez Nous" is sandwiched between two layers of fiberglass deck. Each of those layers is thicker and heavier than the hulls of many pleasure boats built today. And the fiberglass layers are joined together all around as a whole. I like old boats built like this.

Old boats have old wood and we all know that wood rots. But fiberglass doesn't rot. Many new boats are built with thin layers of fiberglass that rely on being bonded to wooden structures such as bulkheads, furniture, cabinets and other components. Many old boats were built with very thick heavy fiberglass that could do very well without this type of support. I've been amazed at mine, as I mentioned earlier. If you're looking at an old boat and find soft wood, don't let it kill your dream without investigation into its importance and the role it plays. Many older boats have lots of wood that isn't critical to support the fiberglass hull. If it is structural, consider what it would take to replace it. If you want a show boat, it would probably take a lot to make a "pretty" job. If you're not into owning a show boat, perhaps you could do it yourself.

Old boats may have characteristics you just don't find on many new boats anymore, because it costs too much. My old boat has heavy fiberglass fuel and water tanks. (The boat uses diesel fuel). These are very stable and easy to repair, often in place. Aluminum and even stainless often have problems, particularly in weld areas, and sometimes are a nightmare to replace or repair.

Old boats can be very good boats and that's important to know if you own one or if you want another boat but can't afford the new boat prices.

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