On the Dubious Merits of Accepting Free Boats
Admit it. We have all been there. The classified advertisement reads: “14 foot boat. Needs work. Free.” Like lemmings headed for the cliff, we make the call and the next thing you know we are driving to hell and gone to look at some derelict and likely as not end up driving home with it in tow. For those who fit this profile, here are some factors to consider when faced with the prospect of accepting a free (or almost free) boat.
First some illustrative examples:
When I was a lad of 16 newly smitten with the boating bug, I was offered a sad, wood Star class sloop for free or close to it. It was hogged (i.e. the bow and stern had sagged below horizontal) and one could read a newspaper through the gaps in the cedar planking. The trailer was rusted and not roadworthy, and the spars were broken and good only for high class, Sitka spruce kindling. A few bronze fittings were salvageable and the cast iron bulb keel, rusted and pitted as it was, might have been restorable or worth something as scrap iron. In the end, my boat repair buddy and I turned it down as beyond repair and more of a financial liability than asset (although we toyed with the idea of burning it and salvaging the hundreds of bronze screws that held the cedar planking to the hardwood frames.) In retrospect, not accepting this free boat was a sound decision.
Much later in the mid-1980’s, I was vacationing at a summer camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the New York State Adirondacks and came across an ageing Laser hull in a barn. Checking with the camp manager, I found that the boat had been kept at a yacht club down on Long Island Sound and somebody had stolen the spars, sail, rudder/tiller and dagger board leaving only the bare hull behind. The owner had donated the bare hull to the camp where it had sat for several years and was about to be hauled off to the local landfill. The hull was in pretty good shape and I ended up buying it for $75, close to the “free boat” subject of this article. Over the next year, I was able to scrounge up a beautiful (and free) wood dagger board from a Laser racer who had upgraded to a new plastic board, and I got a spare mast and boom from a nearby college in return for doing some fiberglass repairs to one of the Lasers in their small fleet. I then found a used but serviceable sail for $45 at a local marine store and went to my Nautical Junque box for fittings and running rigging. However, a used rudder/tiller assembly was not to be found at any price, and I ended up having to buy the assembly new for about $200. That said, I ended up with a very nice Laser for about $320 that I sailed and raced for several years and eventually resold for $900. The hassle factor of having to find the missing gear notwithstanding, this turned out to be a pretty good deal.
Another acquaintance offered me damaged 1979 Sunfish with a complete rig for $100, again nearly free given that a new Sunfish costs over $3,000 these days. The hull had some significant damage, but the sail and spars were in fine shape, the dagger board needed refinishing and it came with not one but two complete rudder/tiller assemblies, a real bonus. I ended up making the repairs to the hull and reselling the boat for $600. I kept the other rudder/tiller assembly (street value: about $150) and used it in another Sunfish restoration project. This was a good project but from a strictly financial standpoint, I would have been better off trashing the hull and “parting out” (i.e. selling the gear and fittings for used parts) but there is something satisfying about restoring a badly damaged boat and getting it back on the water again.
For several years, I admired a 1960’s vintage wood Flying Dutchman sailboat sitting on a trailer in a field near a summer cottage. It was probably a magnificent boat in its day, but the hull was badly damaged and the gear was outdated. Still the trailer looked serviceable and when the cottage sold, I approached the former owner who was happy to take $85 for the package. I did resell the trailer almost immediately for about what I had paid for the whole package, but the remaining gear (aluminum Proctor spars, centerboard, rigging and fittings) were too old and obsolete for current FD sailors. The gear sat in my barn for the better part of 3 years before I finally found a guy who bought the gear for a FD restoration project he was undertaking. The hull rotted away outside in the barnyard and will eventually get a decent Viking funeral when I get around to it. All-in-all, this was not my best free boat transaction.
More recently an acquaintance of mine came into possession of a 1960 vintage fiberglass Penguin class catboat and an oversized trailer. He sailed the boat a few times but it always seemed to capsize and he had great difficulty righting the boat and sailing it home. It ended up on his front lawn with a sign saying: “$100 or best offer.” Weeks later, a new “Free” sign was up as a result of his wife wanting this boat off their lawn and out of their lives. This time I did accept it and drove it 5 miles home with the trailer wheel bearings making obscene noises. The boat itself was in pretty sorry shape. The foam had absorbed water and the hull must have weighed 400 lbs (hence the capsize problems) but the spruce spars, center board, rudder/tiller and sail were in fair to good shape. I decided to part out the boat and a few internet clicks later I found a gentleman in Michigan who offered me $200 for the spars, rudder/tiller, centerboard and sail. I found somebody who was driving that way and got the equipment car top delivered, and the buyer even chipped in for gas money. As for the hull, I removed and trashed the waterlogged foam, advertised the bare hull and sold it “as is” for $35 to a guy who wanted a dinghy to row out to his moored sailboat in nearby Oneida Lake (New York). He ended up installing some oar locks, a seat and a few blocks of new foam flotation, and was happy with the purchase. As for the trailer, I removed the rotted bunks, bolted on some 3/8” pressure treated plywood decking, replaced the rusted bearings with some other used (but serviceable) bearings from my Nautical Junque box and ended up with a very serviceable flat bed trailer that I have used almost weekly since. All-in-all, this turned out to be a very good transaction, and good example of positive nautical recycling. Restoring the boat would have been a major undertaking and given that the Penguin class is not active in my geographic area, I would have had a hard time reselling it.
Next, as a hobby, I buy, repair and resell small sailboats, and about a year ago, I saw a badly damaged Sunfish hull at an automotive salvage yard. I checked with the owner and he ended up giving the boat to me. I salvaged it for parts and ended up with a few blocks, cleats, a mainsheet hook, aluminum trim, a bow handle, a nice fiberglass splash rail and a few other odds and ends. The hull itself was damaged way beyond repair, and if I carted it intact to the local solid waste facility, they would have charged me $50 or more to dispose of it. On the other hand, I knew that while my trash collection service would not take a full sized hull, it would take about anything that fit in my trash cans. I borrowed a friend’s Sawsall reciprocating saw, and in a move reminiscent of the gruesome wood chipper scene in the movie Fargo, I sawed the hull up into small pieces and fit the entire fiberglass hull into two thirty gallon trash cans which the trash service took without a whimper. It did take me about 2 hours of work to reduce the Sunfish carcass to small pieces, but in the process, I learned a little about the insides of a Sunfish hull. In retrospect, it might have been better to pass on this one, but several of the parts and fittings salvaged off this derelict did go to good use in other Sunfish repair projects.
My most recent free boat escapade involved two free Sunfish hulls that a friend spotted at the local landfill. I was out of town at the time but my 17 year old son took the call from my friend, knew I would want them and tore off to the landfill and trailed them home. Again, a few clicks on the Sunfish website and I had a buyer from Maine who gladly paid me $100 for both hulls sight unseen. Seems that he had a full rig (sail, spars, ruder/tiller etc.) but his old hull was damaged beyond repair. He drove all the way from Southern Maine to Central New York. We loaded one hull on the top of his ageing Ford station wagon and put the other one in the rear storage area/folded down back seat. He drove off happy as the proverbial clam at high tide and I was $100 richer for the experience (and yes, I did share the booty with my son.) Had the guy from Maine not bought the hulls from me right away, I would have been stuck with the aforementioned disposal or a long term storage problem.
So what makes a good “free boat” deal and what does not? Here are some factors to consider:
First, what is your purpose in accepting a free boat? Do you intend to repair it and use it yourself or resell it, or are you just looking for parts that you can use in other projects? If you do plan to make the repairs necessary do you have the time, interest, skills, tools, money and a suitable workspace to convert a derelict into a seaworthy vessel? If not, you may get stuck with a boat that will ultimately become a liability rather than an asset. Accepting a free boat because “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is usually not a good decision. Don’t let emotion override reason.
Second, is the boat salvageable? I love working with wood but a 40 year old wood boat with rotted keel, frames and planking may not be fixable and will eventually need to be disposed of at your expense, and with landfill costs soaring, disposing of a hull could end up costing you a lot of money. A friend of mine accepted a small one design fiberglass sailboat once, salvaged a few fittings from it but ended up paying $75 to dispose of the hull at a local trash processing facility – not a good deal for my friend.
Third, is the boat complete or is it missing essential gear? A bare sailboat hull isn’t much good unless it has a spars, rudder, tiller, sail, dagger board or centerboard and rigging. A bare hull often ends up being worth less than these other parts, and second hand parts are often difficult to find at decent prices. I have seen people who accept a free hull spend hundreds of dollars in parts and gear to get the boat back in the water when in retrospect they would have been better off simply buying a low cost used boat with all gear included. A complete rig is a genuine plus (extra gear is even better); a boat missing essential gear is far less attractive.
Fourth, do you have a storage area in the event you need to store the acquisition for an extended period of time? Boats and gear take up space and these days many municipalities have regulations about how long you can park a boat on your property. Check out the local codes and zoning regulations before assuming you can park a boat in your driveway for six months. Having a storage area separate from your primary dwelling is a plus especially if your significant other does not share your enthusiasm for having a dilapidated boat in the driveway for months on end.
Fifth, if you accept a free boat primarily to salvage the gear and fittings, what will you do with the hull which will be worth even less now that it has been stripped? See “Second” above. What are the economics of disposing of a hull and will you have to spend hours dismantling the hull to disposable pieces or paying to have it disposed of? That said, it may still be worth taking a damaged beyond repair hull if the gear and fittings are in good shape. Back to the Sunfish example, a used rudder/tiller assembly, dagger board, spars, sail, fittings and rigging may be worth hundreds of dollars and easily re-sold given the availability of free advertising on the internet. I have accepted some thoroughly trashed hulls just to get the gear and fittings that came with it and in almost all cases, it turned out to be a good deal.
A friend once told me that a dozen free eggs is an asset; a dozen free rotten eggs is a liability. The same applies to accepting free boats and the trick is to be rational rather than emotional in the deliberation. Free boats, like kittens at a flea market, are not hard to find. If you haunt the newspaper and internet “For Sale” listings, they appear frequently. The task then becomes trying to decide whether or not the free boat will meet your wants and needs without becoming a liability.
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