Buyers Beware of Post-Storm Bargains

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 03:54PM - Comments: (6)

Monica McFawn
Monica McFawn

Boats driven ashore by Hurricane Matthew lie strewn along the shoreline at the Palmetto Bay Marina in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

If you are in the market for a used boat and live where winter storage is the norm, now is probably one of the best times to bargain in North America. The owner is looking at another year of storage bills for a boat he no longer wants, and he knows that trying to sell a boat thatís buttoned down for the winter is like trying to sell a house thatís under a circus tent.

However, if you are anywhere near the pathway of this yearís Hurricane Dorian, that bargain boat might well turn out to be your worst nightmare. Back in 2007, we published a special report on what happens when a fiberglass boat is subjected to the point loads that can occur during a storm. More recently, we offered a guide to the do-it-yourself survey that can help you identify cost-prohibitive repairs before paying for a professional survey. For the undaunted buyer who wants to wade hip deep into a restoration project, our guide to do-it-yourself boatyards can also help estimate the true costs of a long-term, do-it-yourself repair project.

How many post-Dorian boats are on the market is not clear. BoatUS estimated that Hurricane Matthew did more than $110 million dollars in damage to recreational boats†in 2016. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the boaters' advocacy group offered some good advice on how to identify a storm-damaged boat that has been dressed up for sale. The release also cautioned that the same protections that car buyers enjoy in some states often donít exist for buyers of used boats. Buying an ďas isĒ used boat is truly caveat emptor. Anyone contemplating going this route should definitely read the short advisory from BoatUS first.

One recurring theme in the three Practical Sailor articles I cite above is that severe structural issues can quickly turn a bargain boat into bottomless moneypit. Here are just three of the serious problems to look for.

Core damage ó Once the outer skin of a cored hull or deck is breached, the core damage can spread widely. Most often, this is a long-term process as plywood or balsa (probably the most common core material in production sailboats) rots. A Matthew boat that has suffered a breached hull or deck might have damage limited to a small area that might be relatively easy to address. However, some core constructions can deteriorate rapidly when they become wet, in which case, a small hole can be the tip of the iceberg in terms of core damage. Even core that is not wet can suffer bond-failure, in which the outer fiberglass skin has pulled away from the core. This diminishes the structural integrity of the hull and can occur in areas far away from the point of impact.

Secondary bond failure ó The chemical bonds between interior structures (such as bulkheads, pans and liners, and furniture) are generally not as strong as bonds formed during the molding process. As a storm-wrecked boat is battered on a beach or mudflat, unsupported areas of the hull will flex, stressing these secondary bonds to the point of failure. Unfortunately, many of these failed bond lines are hidden behind bulkheads, liners, and cabinets, virtually invisible until you start unscrewing furniture.

Ralph Naranjo
Ralph Naranjo

Sailboats are designed to take sailing loads, not the point loads imposed as a boat bounces ashore. Even a soft landing in mud or grass is reason for concern.

Hidden structural failure ó Mast, keel, and rudder loads spread throughout the boatís hull. This means that a simple grounding can cause damage in places far away from the point of impact. It is not uncommon that a boat that has grounded hard shows structural failures in unexpected areas of the deck, main bulkhead, or mast partners. Rudder damage is often the first sign of more serious problems in the bearings, rudder stock, or rudder framework. If the prop and shaft were subject to severe pounding, those impact loads surely transmitted to the strut and supporting structure.

Submerged engine ó Beyond the obvious problems such as water-stained woodwork, ruined upholstery, and mold and mildew, there are less obvious problems associated with a boat that has sunk. A diesel engine that has been damaged by salt water can often be resurrected to run temporarily without addressing corrosion issues that can come back to haunt a new owner. Have an experienced mechanic closely inspect any storm damaged boat, and ask for receipts for any repairs to the engine. If it has been submerged and has no history of a rebuild, figure a complete rebuild (or new engine) into your budget, just to be safe.

We strongly encourage anyone contemplating buying a storm-damaged boat to work closely with an experienced surveyor. Taking on the challenge of restoring an insurance write-off is not for the faint of heart, and in many cases, does not make economic sense. However, more than a few cruisers are happily circling the world in boats they rebuilt from scratch. The good thing about this approach is that you know your boat inside and out. The bad thing is you know exactly what it cost you in blood, sweat, and dollars. Sadly, some Mattew boats will not be worth saving.

Comments (6)

Ask yourself why an insurance company would total a boat they could fix for less. Fixing junkers rarely makes economic sense.

If restoring damaged boats is your hobby, nothing wrong with that.

Posted by: Boston Barry | October 5, 2019 8:32 AM    Report this comment

Lots of good advise in the above comments. Here's one more. Even when restored damaged boats just like autos and houses are substantially devalued when sold later on.
And reputable brokers, certainly lending institutions, will always ask about prior damage.
No matter how much is spent on repairs a severely damaged boat is always suspect.
Finally, after a professional survey always ask to see the yard invoices involving repairs. It's a warm day in the winter when any owner of a damaged boat ever gives the repair yard an "open checkbook" to fix the damage. Don't take my word for it. Ask around. Even the "big money" boats that have been damaged are rarely if ever brought up to "standard". At day's end a "damaged boat" always remains a "damaged boat". Even when it looks spiffy.

Peter I Berman
Norwalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | October 3, 2019 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Those who understand the 30-70 rule - the boat builder creates 30% and buys the remaining 70% - wouldn't go near a storm damaged boat even one that's a "give away".
With today's soaring equipment and repair costs even buying a boat several decades old involves a major loss when eventually selling. Hands down the very best monies ever spent on a boat are contracting with a well recognized boat surveyor. Not for the usual "baloney insurance" survey. But for a thorough inspection detailed for its future use. The very best surveyors are always booked up. So be patient. Lest one gets a survey not worth the paper. Surveying recreational and commercial craft are well recognized crafts requiring years of experience and detailed knowledge. Finally, always remember the target is carefully estimating the total acquisition cost of the boat so that it can be used for its intended purpose. I've yet to see any older sailboat intended for Blue Water cruising that ever turned out to be a "bargain". And I've seen more than most over a long sailing life involving countless numbers of surveys of "supposedly well maintained boats".

Peter I Berman
Norwalk, CT
Author: "Outfitting the Offshore Cruising Sailboat" Parcay Publishers.

Posted by: Piberman | October 3, 2019 11:35 AM    Report this comment

This article gives good advice. I would add that heavily damaged racing sailboats, little known makes of sailboats, sailboats where the builder is out of business, or older sailboats are poor candidates for major restoration efforts.

Posted by: mark2 | October 3, 2019 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Ask the broker for a damage disclosure. If the broker refuses just walk away.
But having said that;
Google Swan 55 + Claasen or the Yacht Cesarina ex-Laurita. This is what you can do with a storm damaged yacht and an outstanding yacht builder; Claasen Shipyards.
A rather dated 1971 Swan 55 becomes a Spirit of Tradition Edwardian masterpiece.
claasenshipyards dot com/yacht/cesarina-laurita/

Posted by: rav555 | October 3, 2019 10:23 AM    Report this comment

I could not agree with this article more. Buying ANYTHING after a storm is risky business. Cars, boats, homes, etc.. Make sure to do a comprehensive background check on any and all large purchases. It could cost you big time if you don't.

I would also recommend checking to see where a boat was located during a the storm. There are a lot of hurricane holes that do provide sufficient protection during storms.

Posted by: hurricanehole | October 23, 2017 2:05 PM    Report this comment

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