Boat Livin’

Beginner’s Guide to Boat Acquisition

They say the two best days of owning a boat is the day you buy it and the day you sell it, which is bullshit. The best days I had on S/V Unicorn were this trip to Catalina along with countless late night talks in the cabin, weekend parties, and the boat parade.

However...there are painful days. Like hitting your head on the passthrough everyday for a month. Like the diesel overflowing into the bilge. Like the USCG having an 8-month backlog on vessel documentations.

So, if you want to get a boat, this should give you a good primer on what’s involved.

Wanting a Boat

Everyone’s got their reasons. Everyone does a ton of research. Everyone sets up what they feel is a generous budget. And everyone is surprised.

I wanted a boat to live on and eventually sail to places that can’t be reached by plane or land. I wanted the smallest boat that would be comfortable as a liveaboard. I wanted a safe boat. I wanted a pretty boat. And I wanted it to be under $50,000.

Finding a Boat

A lot of the work in finding a boat involves looking at Yacht World and SailboatData, while cross-referencing with any boat owner’s blog you can find about the potential boat.

You can look locally, but the selection’s limited. Where I lived, there weren’t a lot of blue water boats for sale in my price range. So I looked in the Pacific Northwest, as well.

Unicorn was located in Port Townsend, WA for sale by broker on Yacht World. A 35' 1974 Hallberg-Rassy Rasmus. Thick fiberglass hull, full keel, beautiful interior, full set of sails, cool red stove. Some of the electronics were out of date, but I figured I’d update those before heading offshore.

Once you find a boat, you set up a sea trial. This means you gotta get yourself to wherever the boat is, meet the broker and then tell him you don’t actually know how to sail. Actually, I told him beforehand, and he was helpful in showing me all of the features of the boat as we were sailing/motoring.

Paying for a Boat

The first chunks of money you’re gonna put down are for a deposit to hold the boat and a survey, so you don’t get hosed. The survey is a double-edged sword. If you don’t want the boat, you’re still out $600 or so for the survey. If you do want the boat, the survey might say there are items you need to fix before a certain date. AKA spend more money.

Anyway, I got the boat. Here’s a rambling of things I had to pay for right off the bat:

$ Survey
$ Slip fee while it was being surveyed
$ Haul-out fee to survey the hull
$ Powerwashing for the hull
$ Closing fee
$ Sales commission
$ Un-stepping the mast to prepare for transport
$ Truck to haul to the boat to California
$ Boat yard fee for storing the boat
$ Re-stepping the mast
$ Put-in fee
$ Slip deposit
$ Coast Guard documentation administration fee
$ California sales tax
$ Los Angeles County property tax
$ New zincs
$ New flares

Registering a Boat

If you bought the boat through the help of a broker, they will also take care of the documentation paperwork. Unicorn was registered with the U.S. Coast Guard. I’m not sure why people would prefer to register with the state; it costs more and you have to go to the DMV. But you can choose either one (don’t do both!).

And when it’s time to renew...word to the wise: don’t wait until 3 months before your USCG documentation is set to expire because, it turns out, they have an eight-month backlog. No documentation? Not a problem, except that it invalidates your insurance and breaks the terms of most slip leases.

In this case, go to the DMV four times until an employee says you gave them the right documents the first time, and feel sad that you had to pay $90 instead of zero dollars to keep your boat legit.

Moving the Boat

Okay, look. If you buy a boat very far away from the place you want to keep it, you need to sail it, motor it, or truck it. If you don’t know how to sail, you can hire a captain to sail your boat for you. If you don’t want someone else sailing without you because you can’t take the time off work, you can hire someone to deliver it via truck. I did this. It cost me $5000. I still cry about it.

Finding a Slip

I hear it used to be very difficult to get a slip in Marina del Rey. Boats aren’t that cool anymore, I guess, because there are slips available at several marinas. For a 35' boat, the prices I found were anywhere from $350 to $650 per month. This includes electric and hose water and usually includes some shore facilities like bathrooms, showers, lounge, and laundry.

The tricky part is getting a liveaboard slip. Those cost an extra 50% of the month’s rent. And marinas only want one or two liveaboards per dock.

Learning to Sail

If you don’t know how to sail, you can take lessons and study books before buying a boat. I, on the other hand, thought I’d learn more by getting the boat first. There’s a history of sailing on both sides of my family, so at least I had my dad giving me advice (“Erin, do not buy that boat. It’s too slow. Here, have all my sailing books.”). But where I really lucked out is from making friends in the Marina.

Gabe was the first person I met in the Marina; he happened to be the tow captain for area. He grew up there and introduced me to Leo, a sailing coach. They introduced me to all their friends, who all grew up sailing together. This was the best thing that could ever happen.

My new friends were great. “Try beercan racing,” they said. “It’ll help you learn to sail,” they said. I did a handful of races and if these are “casual” I don’t want to know what “serious” racing is. I think I almost died, twice. But you do get to drink beer once the spinnakers come out.

Maintaining a Boat

There are a four main areas of maintenence: mechanical, electrical, outer, and inner. Every boat is a bit different depending on the age, type, and climate. I hired people to keep the outer part in good shape, cleaned the inside myself, and had friends help with mechanical and electrical.

For the outer part, at a minimum, your boat needs hull cleaning and deck cleaning. How often depends on the temperature and ocean life in the water, and how many seagulls are shitting on your boat. If it has a teak deck (or in my case, cap rail), that will need oiling.

You will discover many new cleaning products: bilge pads for soaking up oil and diesel, DampRid for preventing mildew and warping, but for the most part, nothing beats elbow grease. Even though the boat was clean when I got it, I found places that needed cleaning after a little digging. Boats are crazy.

I don’t have a lot to say about mechanical and electrical other than this: Volvo Pentas are expensive for parts, if you can even find the parts. It sucked to work on, and we actually had to jerry-rig an electric starter onto it to get the sea water pump to function.

Having Fun

Bring enough life jackets for everyone. Make sure your batteries are charged and your diesel is full. Check the weather. Have fun.