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40 Years of Used Boats

2008 November 10
November 2006

The marketplace is overflowing with great buys

I've been doing a lot of sailing and a lot of traveling lately. In the past few months I have meandered through the Chesapeake Bay, crossed Lake Michigan a couple of times and drifted out to Catalina Island. I've chartered in French Polynesia and taken Quetzal, my Kaufman 47 cutter, down to Panama and back. And everywhere I go I check out sailboats. Less charitable types, a.k.a. landlubbers, might call it an obsession bordering on addiction. I confess I'm a marina, mooring field and anchorage junkie. As soon as my boat is secure, I launch the dink and row around the harbor. I tell my crew that it's my professional responsibility. After all, I write boat reviews for a living. But they know it has nothing to do with writing, it's all about the boats, something you either understand or never will.

And what have I discovered out there? A lot of used boats. Sadly, but not surprisingly, you don't see many new boats. The few new boats tend to be either relatively affordable production boats, or a handful of tricked-out world cruisers, preparing to, well, cruise the world. You see some new small boats, but not as many as you should.
Statistics don't lie, the new sailboat industry is flat. How flat? According to figures from National Marine Manufacturers Association, 14,400 sailboats were sold in the United States in 2005, up ever so slightly from 2004. However, it was 4,000 fewer than in 2001. Sailboats represented a tiny fraction, around 2 percent of the 864,000 new boats sold in 2005. This figure includes anything that floats, from houseboats to personal watercraft.

The average price of a sailboat, and this includes all makes and models, from an 8-foot Optimist to the new Hylas 66 pilothouse, was more than $44,000. To put that in perspective, the average price of a sailboat in 2001 was $34,000. That's a 25-percent price increase in four years. If you had a sense that boats are getting more expensive, you're right. It's almost impossible to find a new 30-footer for less than $100,000, and you can spend nearly twice that. And when you factor in other costs, including sales tax, dockage, insurance, and maintenance, the picture becomes sadder still.

However, there are a few statistics that work to the average working stiff/sailor's advantage. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, there were nearly as many sailboats afloat in U.S. waters as any other type of boat, more than 1.5 million. Sailboats, unlike small powerboats and other more fragile watercraft, never seem to die. A 40-year old Pearson Ensign is just as much fun to sail today as it was when new, back when SAILING Magazine was a black-and-white regional magazine hitting the newsstands for the first time. This huge inventory of boats supports what is an obvious statistic, for every new sailboat sold, eight used boats change hands. The secondhand market is what really drives the sailing industry. And, it's a buyer's market and always has been. If you really want a sailboat you can find one that you can afford.

It's actually a great time to be looking for a used boat. Not only is the market soft but used boat buyers are equipped with more tools than ever to help make informed decisions. There is a lot of good information out there. SAILING Magazine was one of the first publications to seriously review used boats. The Used Boat Notebook has been a monthly or bimonthly feature for 10 years and close to 100 boats have been profiled. Other magazines have followed our lead, and offer occasional used boat reviews. The Internet not only provides current, wide-ranging information on boats for sale through a variety of Web sites but also allows prospective buyers to thoroughly research boats they're considering. Online owner's associations make it easy to find detailed information and chat with other owners. Another great advantage of the Internet is that it allows used boat owners to track down long out of production parts and fittings to help them retrofit their old boats.

New boat prices have also had an impact on how many of us care for our older boats. Realizing that new boats may be out of our purchasing league, we take better care of our current boats. I have no statistics to back this up but my casual observations and gut instincts tell me that older boats are better maintained than ever before. There's a certain responsibility that goes with keeping your old boat in good sailing condition. An old, abandoned fiberglass sailboat is an environmental nuisance. Also, you never know how much pleasure that old boat sitting on a trailer behind the garage just might give you if you take the time to get it back in shape. Remember Spray, Joshua Slocum's famous sloop? She was propped up in a field when a friend gave her to him. "The ship proved to be a very antiquated sloop called the Spray, that the neighbors declared had been built in year 1." Slocum rebuilt her and became the first man to sail solo around the world. Spray may be the most famous used boat of all.

During my recent travels, three different used boats caught my eye. At Marina Carenero in Bocas des Toro, Panama, I tied up next to an old but immaculate Peterson 44. A handsome center-cockpit cruiser, the boat was a 1978 model that looked brand new. I was shocked to find out that the boat was just finishing up a six-year circumnavigation. Unfortunately the owners were not around, having returned to the states for a brief visit home. However, Mac, the marina owner, gave me the details. The boat was owned by a couple in their 60s, who had left San Diego and headed across the South Pacific. They spent a season down under before crossing the Indian Ocean. They then angled up the Red Sea into the Mediterranean where they tarried for a couple of years. Then they crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean. In Panama, they were making plans to transit the canal and head for home. And their boat looked no worse for the wear.

The Peterson 44 is a well-known, affordable bluewater boat. The hull has a soft sheer, the deck house profile is low, the fin keel and skeg hung rudder have moderate proportions and a generous sailplan keeps the boat moving in light air. About 200 44s were built during a short six-year production run in late 1970s and early 1980s. Later, the Kelly Peterson 44 and 46 replaced and updated the original design.

A quick survey of www.yachtworld.com, one of the best Internet sites for used boat listings, shows six Peterson 44s for sale, ranging from $110,000 to $130,000. Most models have already been retrofitted once, and documented problems like leaking water tanks and the faulty heel on the rudder bearing have already been dealt with. The interior features an aft cabin that is accessed through a cockpit hatch or a stooped walkthrough from the saloon. The galley is well set up for cooking underway and a dinette to port is a practical arrangement for cruising. That couple has probably finished their circumnavigation by now, and I suspect their boat still looks like new.

At the docks of Milwaukee's South Shore Yacht Club I spied a squeaky clean Tartan 37. Another great old boat, this Sparkman & Stevens design had to be at least 30 years old. Admiring it from the dock, I took in the measure of a modern classic. Relatively low and sleek, the T-37 has modest sheer and a proud reverse transom. The teak toerail was freshly varnished. I couldn't see the keel, but I knew that the long fin was shallow because I could see the centerboard winch in the cockpit. Board up draft is just 4 feet, 2 inches. The rudder is hung on a skeg. A sloop rig with a short boom, the T-37 was designed during the days when huge genoas ruled the waves.

The T-shaped cockpit is a study in function nicely fused with comfort. The side decks are wide and the chainplates are well inboard making for a friendly and safe foredeck. The boat was not fit out for racing or cruising, just for sailing. And it was scrubbed to an extent that you needed sunglasses to look at. The Tartan 37 is a fine example of a quality used boat at an affordable price. Nearly 500 of the older S&S 37s were built during a 13-year production run that ended in 1989. Prices vary, but with a bit of legwork you can find a nicely maintained and equipped Tartan 37 for less than $60,000. Sure the interior may be dark by today's standards and not quite as roomy as those glitzy new boats at the show. But few boats sail any better through a range of conditions, and that dark teak interior sure seems more palatable when you compare what $60,000 buys on the new boat market.

Cruising around the mooring field in Two Harbors, Catalina, I spied a pale blue-hulled Rawson 30. This was one of the old ones, probably built in the mid to late 1960s and it was a little rough around the edges. But it was set up for cruising, California style. It had solar panels all over the deck, a huge wind generator, a monster TV antenna and floating alongside, a super slide. I only saw one crewmember, a three- or four-year-old blond kid scooting around the deck naked. The boat was obviously his home.
The Rawson 30 is better known on the West Coast, where hard-core cruisers know it as an affordable bluewater boat. A heavy, full-keeled cruiser designed by William Garden, they were built by Ron Rawson in Redmond, Washington. Plenty of freeboard and a boxy cabintrunk resulted in a lot of room below for a 30-footer. Interior quality varied dramatically as most were kit boats, meaning that owners bought the hull and deck and finished the interior themselves. This was a West Coast trend in the 1960s and 1970s, when cruising first evolved as a lifestyle and it was cool to a have a
funky boat.

Four Rawson 30s are listed on yachtworld.com. A 1964 model, which has completed a circumnavigation but looks tired, can be had for less than $10,000. A refurbished pilothouse model with a new diesel is asking $27,000. At either end of this range, you are looking at a very affordable and capable boat. Your bluewater cruising dreams don't have to be derailed by a lack of money.

So forget that tired excuse that sailing is too expensive. The used market is vast, there are boats to fit every sailor's needs. And no matter how much or how little you spend on a boat, the dynamics of wind, water and sail are the same. The power, the peace and sense of fulfillment that only sailing can offer is defined not by the price of the boat, but by the measure of a sailor's spirit. And if you see someone rowing around the anchorage checking out your boat, say hello.