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Co-owning a boat

2023 September 1

Sharing the cost, labor and enjoyment of boat ownership can be the perfect solution when structured properly

Since we’re a partnership with limited funds, our boat planning often revolves around what we can afford, or ways we can accomplish what we want with little cash outlay. We’ve been fortunate to have sailing friends who have donated self-tailing winches, jammers, in fact the whole boat. We were gifted Wildwood—bought her for a dollar—with the promise that we’d do our best to bring her back to life and give her a few good years. So far—year three—we’ve been able to do that. Since I have been able to squirrel away some cash over the years I am often the one who can put up the money for an expenditure. Yet I am clear, each year, as to what my boat budget is, and I stick to it. While we’re in the height of spring outfitting I’ll produce a spreadsheet of what I’ve spent—Geo does the same, and we discuss what’s needed for the rest of the season. This allows us to redirect or slow down on spending so we don’t put either one of us out of our means. 

Two owners aren’t always in sync about boat needs, availability, priorities. It takes a while to create a vision that works. Geo and I handle this by floating ideas—about the boat, our interests, future plans—often in the cockpit, frequently with a mind to the following season. Geo calls these a “different kind of negotiation.”  “They’re peaceful—different from a marriage. They don’t trespass on egos,” he said.

What about time on the boat? We enjoy sailing, racing and cruising together, so don’t go through the “who’s on the boat this weekend?” that other partnerships might. 

Our legal aspects are the bare minimum. We have a document of title that moved ownership from the last pair (a married couple) to us (not a married couple). We use both our names on boat paperwork. Wildwood is insured in both our names. Getting insurance for a 40-plus year old wooden boat was a challenge but we were able to transfer the insurance from the previous owners. Our intentions, if one of us predeceases the other, is that the boat goes fully to the remaining partner, not to heirs. 

I am sure our casualness about paperwork makes the lawyers amongst you cringe.

A more formal partnership

Yes, there are tighter legal ways to own boats together. In fact, three of my siblings purchased a boat together during the pandemic. Two of them are lawyers, so it made sense for them to create an LLC for the boat. This has the benefit of making ownership stakes clear and lays out what happens when an owner dies (in this case the deceased’s shares go to the remaining two). It can also shield one’s personal assets from those of the LLC. Yet there are other requirements of an LLC—that funds from accounts separate from one’s personal accounts be used, for instance.

These three owners work out the season’s schedule in advance—they don’t all cruise together. They find ways to agree on boat work and how to have that done—either DIY or hired. One partner has not sailed much; the other two have sailed professionally. I’ve heard the occasional snipe or gripe from one or the other of the owners, but so far the boat is still being cared for and enjoyed greatly, if differently, by each of the owners.  

Unique boat-owning solutions 

As I’ve said, the right boat ownership for me right now is a 50-50 split on the one-tonner Wildwood. It turns out that one-tonners have a history of unique ownership situations. In the mid 1970s a group of 10 young businessmen joined forces to build, own and campaign another Peterson-designed one-tonner named Kindred Spirit. These owners had apparently grown up “thrashing one another in small boats on Long Island sound.” Having attained some discretionary income in their 30s and 40s, the fellows—including Skip Purcell, Tony Hogan and Bob Barton—formed a unique syndicate and went on to race the one-ton circuit. The fate of their boat, and their partnership, remains a mystery.

Another group of U.S. sailors had joined forces to commission and campaign a vessel called The Hawk in 1968. The group, many of them Cruising Club of America members, consisted of eight men with various backgrounds: Henry Scheel (designer), Daniel Bickford, Peter Comstock, William B. Dodge, Walter Flower, George F.B. Johnson, Donald P. Robinson and William White. They called themselves the Ideal Partnership. 

Built in Germany in 1968, The Hawk was modified to race under the IOR rule in the early 1970s, and competed successfully in the East Coast one-tonner circuit. The crew list varied and was purported to read like a who’s who of U.S. sailing superstars. Eventually the number of owners dwindled to two—Dodge and Bickford—who bought out the syndicate after one member failed to pay his taxes. The drama included the IRS sending the Coast Guard out to seize The Hawk from one of the owner’s moorings in Vinalhaven, Maine. 

It’s a cautionary tale. Apparently ideal boat partnerships can go bad. 

Here’s a path to boat sustainable ownership: research the kind of boat that suits your needs; if possible, find a partner as passionate and resourceful as you; make sure you pay your fair share; be upfront about your abilities and resources; check in at least annually on whether the project is still a good fit for you and whomever. And pay attention to behaviors, not words. 

Other important steps

• Secure a title, or some written transference of ownership. Be clear about whose names go on it.

• File your annual boat registration or secure federal documentation (for larger boats).

• Obtain insurance—this is harder to get for aging boats, especially wooden boats. Some marinas require it. Consider this aspect carefully, and ask around.

• Create and update an annual budget—and discuss it. 

Boat partnerships can be a great way to own a boat: costs, labor and enjoyment are all shared. Find the right partner, structure the relationship in a way that protects all involved and enjoy it.

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