Sailing: Things to learn and do before the boat goes in the water

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Thirty years ago I had a small sailboat and sailed it on small lakes in southern New York State. Five weeks ago my friend Kurt took my son and me sailing on his boat on Lake Ontario east of Rochester, New York. Three weeks ago I bought and trailered a 1988 Catalina 22 sailboat from Chautauqua Lake to my home south of Rochester. Two days ago my son, Kurt and I put the boat into Lake Ontario.

Bob and William with the Amanda on launch day

The number of details I’ve had to deal with has been extraordinary. The things to learn have been at times daunting. The skills I have to recall and newly get are rather scary.

Here’s a list of some of what I’ve learned and done in the last month and a half, in and around work, business trips, and other life commitments. I’ve expressed the items as things to do, but they will vary by your experience, type of boat, and local laws and regulations.

Expenses that you may not have considered

  • Decide whether you want to buy a boat that will stay in the water during the season and then be stored nearby, or be moved in and out whenever you want to sail.
  • If you plan to pull the boat on a trailer, ensure that your car or truck can pull the weight of the boat, the trailer, and anything you have stored in the boat. With an SUV this may mean the maximum length of a sailboat you can pull is 22 feet, though a little longer might be possible. Does the boat come with a trailer? Do you have a trailer hitch? Will your purchase of the boat lead to your purchase of a pickup truck?
  • If you plan to leave the boat in the water for the season, make sure that slips are available where you plan to put the boat and you are happy to pay what they charge. One of my local lakes had no slips available anywhere, though several marinas had waiting lists. Docking fees can approach or even exceed $1000 for a season. Big boats cost more as do tonier marinas and yacht clubs.
  • The marina or club where you dock the boat may require you to have insurance on the boat, but you may anyway want to have an individual policy or extend your homeowners insurance to cover the boat. This will be several hundred dollars.
  • If the boat is not trailerable and needs to go into the water at the beginning of the season and then pulled out at the end, you will need to have a cradle on which to place the boat during the off-season. Does the boat come with a cradle? Plan to pay for a crane or other lift to move the boat into or out of the water.
  • If the boat has a trailer, you can use that for winter storage, but there may still be charges for keeping the sailboat near the water. If you are not doing that, think about where you will haul the boat and store it. Do you have a friend with a barn or indoor storage space where you can keep the sailboat? (And if they live near me, can I keep my boat there too?)
  • Find out how much it will cost to register the boat, register the trailer, and have the trailer inspected.
  • Think about whether you want to share the cost and expenses with a relative or friend. Think hard about whether this is really a good idea and if you really like that person.
  • You will almost certainly need a motor to get the boat out of or into the docking slip. These can be shockingly expensive if you need a new one. Try to buy a boat that has a relatively new motor in good condition.
  • If you need to buy a GPS or VHF radio, tack on $300 to $600 to the cost of the boat.
  • The Coast Guard requires certain safety equipment. If your boat doesn’t have it, you will need to buy it.
  • Dock lines and fenders can cost a couple of hundred dollars. Boats frequently come with these and other accessories and you might want to ask if they are available if they are not obvious.
  • Boats have hundreds or thousands of little parts and each one costs three times more than your best guess. Learn where you can get parts online or in local marine shops. Check out West Marine. For things like cotter pins, clevis pins, turnbuckles, stainless steel screws, and light bulbs, buy some extra to have on board.
  • You need a set of tools to have on the boat. These include screw drivers, pliers, a knife, one or more adjustable wrenches, and maybe some hex wrenches. Don’t forget the duct tape (now available in designer colors), superglue, and WD-40.

Choosing a sailboat

  • You can never do too much research. Use the web to narrow down your choices both by manufacturer and by length of boat. I’ve read that you should learn to sail on a boat less than 27 feet in length.
  • Once you have a few candidates, think of the age of the boat. A boat older than forty years may be very much past its prime and just be a money sink. A younger but abused boat may also be a bad investment. Check out Craig’s List to learn about boats of various vintages and how much they should cost.
  • Learn about how the manufacturer has changed the boat during the years. For the Catalina 22, there was a big model improvement in 1985 that fixed a lot of problems and reconfigured the cabin. When I was looking, there were quite a few pre-1985 used boats on the market and far fewer ones built since then. There were also later changes, but my price range narrowed things down to a Catalina 22 built somewhere between 1986 and 1995, roughly speaking. I ended up with a 1988 that was in very good shape. It was farther from my home than I expected it to be, so my son and I had to tow it about 145 miles to get it into our driveway.
  • Older sailboats can be hard to sell. You may be able to get one for free if you wait long enough. Seriously. If you get a free boat, expect that you’ll also probably be giving it away when you tire of the sport or decide to move to a larger sailboat.
  • I bought my boat from a broker at a marina. This worked out well because it eased the transfer of the boat from an Ohio owner to me in New York, and they tuned the motor for me. Caveat emptor if you buy from an individual. Read the Craig’s List warnings.
  • Make sure you can still get parts for the boat. This is one of the things that attracted me to getting a Catalina as my first boat (in my modern age).
  • Avoid boats that been heavily modified by the previous owners. I’m not talking about their adding great electronics or fittings, I mean their making significant changes to the fiberglass or rigging. In computer terms, avoid boats that have been hacked or kluged.
  • Ask yourself if you really want to buy a boat made by a company that has gone out of business. An O’Day in great shape will likely be a fine choice, but do your research. Again, it depends on what you know and what you’ve done before. I was looking to reduce the number of variables and stress opportunities with this boat.
  • Learn the differences between fixed full, fin, and wing keels, and retractable swing keels. This will affect the weight of the boat, the draft (how far below the surface the boat goes), and therefore the depth of water in which you can travel.
  • Either read a lot about how to inspect a sailboat or have a friend or professional surveyor do it for you. Things that are expensive to replace: the motor, the sails, rusted structural elements, cushions, and holes in the body. A surprising number of boats I looked at had trailers that were in horrible shape. Admission of guilt: there were several things I forgot to look at on my boat, but they all turned out to be in really good condition. I dodged a bullet, but I learned my lesson.
  • Learn to say phrases such as “boom vang” with a straight face.
  • Like many things these days, have a good sense of the online community around your intended boat. Strong, welcoming, and helpful communities can help you make this adjustment to a new phase of your life.

Also see: “Sailing: 5 books to get you started”