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Bargain boats found in old barns should star in fixer-upper shows

2022 September 1

As often happens for my musings in this column, three things converged like a perfect storm to make me start thinking. First, being a car nut as well as a boataholic, I visited a friend who is in the process of refurbishing a 70-year-old British sportscar. It was what is revered in the car universe as “a barn find.” In this case, it was a chicken coop find and the first weeks of his ownership were spent removing the decidedly aromatic leavings of seven decades of chickens. But he picked it up for a song, and, as barn find tales go, it was a perfect example that would be worth more than the whole chicken coop when finished. 

Next, a friend, knowing that I am a lifelong sailor, complained to me over a gin and tonic at a party that “I’d love to sail, but sailboats are just too expensive.”

Last, I stopped in at a marina with a huge back lot that was a graveyard of older boats. She Who Must Be Obeyed slipped me off my leash long enough to find there were several that I had once craved beyond any reason. Their decks were Petri dishes with mold that would stump biologists, any canvas was shredded and when I stepped on the deck of one, it was as soft as a Twinkie and made the same “squirking” sound. 

But I realized that many of them were salvageable with some sweat equity, a few barked knuckles, and imagination. So, I went on a quest to see what is out there that would disprove my “sailboats are too expensive” friend. If you abhor any physical work (this includes swabbing decks with soap), stop reading right here and turn the page. But if you’re even a little intrigued, here’s what I’ve found. 

How would you like to pick up a 1984 Hobie 12 monohull sailboat for $41? And that’s with the trailer! Yes, you read that correctly. Forty-one smackers. Heck, I spend that much at the Mexican cantina down the street for lunch tacos.

Or how about a 16-foot 1985 O’Day Daysailer (again, with trailer) for $78. SWMBO spends that in her first five minutes at Costco. I’ve actually sailed Daysailers, and they’re fun, can carry a bunch of friends, and have a little cuddy cabin where you can keep your beer cold and your jackets dry. 

OK, these aren’t perfect. The listing for the Hobie is brutally honest: the trailer has rust and a flat tire, and the sail has a patch. The Daysailer listing admits it hasn’t been used since 2009, is missing its outboard and is at a private residence, although the words “chicken coop” aren’t used.

Those two listings are from a wonderful group called Boat Angel, a Christian organization that uses the proceeds for at-risk segments of the population, including orphans.

This is just one of the groups that take sailboat donations and turn them into money to fund good works. The Chapman School of Seamanship is another non-profit group, based in Florida and using donations to fund its maritime training programs.

I’m almost sorry that I started to research these boats, because Chapman has a 19-foot Cape Dory Typhoon, a long-keel classic that I know to be great fun to sail. It has comfy cockpit seating and a mini-cabin with a couple of berths and a head. This particular one, as shown in the photos, has astounding undersea growth on the hull, wooden parts with long-gone varnish, a running 2.5-horsepower Mercury outboard and (reportedly) good main and jib. Take it home for $995. A steal.

I’ve bought more than my share of old, cheap sailboats of all sizes, and I can assure you they are great fun. They are enjoyable (most of the time) to work on and refurbish, and even more to sail when finished. There is a satisfaction bringing an old dinosaur back to life, with shining fiberglass, satiny varnish and your own personal touches. For me, those are drink holders.

Oh, you say, those are rare examples, the rara avis of cheap boats. Au contraire. Just Google “sailboat donations” and I guarantee you’ll find a bunch of organizations in your own area with listings of boats for you to peruse. 

Item: How about a Laser, dirty and unloved with a bent mast in California. Twenty-seven bucks, and one has to wonder how the mast was bent.

Item: A Catalina 27 with, get this, an electric inboard and solar panels. Somebody clearly had a plan. All the bits are included, from deck brush (probably unused recently) to sails for $201.50. 

Item: If cruising is your goal, check out a 1981 Endeavour 32, which has an enclosed head with shower but a frozen engine. The head needs to be replaced (ick!) and I have no idea if the deck goes squirk when you step on it. But it’s only gonna set you back $250.

Here’s the point. We’re inundated with TV shows about people finding inexpensive houses, devoting weekends to cleaning and painting, and then showing off a finished home suitable for Architectural Digest to photograph. 

Why aren’t these great old sailboats being swept off the market? Perhaps because there’s no show called “Boat Flippers” or “Marina Steals.”

So, do not ever approach me, G&T in hand, whining, “Awww, sailing is too expensive.”