Don't Let Refit Pitfalls Derail Your Cruising Plans

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 05:28PM - Comments: (13)

The conditions of the boat's sails and rig deserve a careful inspection before purchase.

As a good friend finds himself in the middle of the often daunting process of equipping a full-size cruising boat for an extended cruise with his family, I found myself reflecting on some of the things I discovered over the years through my own travails and the experience of others. There seems to be no shortage of books that tell you what you need to do to go cruising, but very few seem to caution about what NOT to do or what to avoid. Here are a few things that I found get in the way of a long-term sailing escape. I’d love to hear more tips on how to avoid these and other pitfalls that can swallow the cruising dream.

  1. Buy the wrong boat. If you’ve done your research, you will almost surely find a practical cruising boat that will serve you well—but will it move you? If you’re not emotionally connected to your boat, if it fails to stir your soul, you’ll have a hard time finding motivation to overcome the many obstacles that lie ahead. A boat is a reflection of its owner, so if you feel a kinship with the seller (not the broker!), you are probably on the right track. How do you know you’ve found the right boat? Uncontrolled pulse rate, loss of concentration, irrational behavior . . . love without the complications of courtship. Our boat reviews are a good place to start your search.
  2. Poor pre-purchase inspection. Every old boat has hidden problems, some of them big enough to devour a refit budget. Hire an EXPERIENCED surveyor who knows cruising boats (not every surveyor does). Make sure any survey focuses on the big-ticket essentials: hull and deck, rudder and steering, rig and sails (this may require hiring a rigger separately), engine, tankage, and ground tackle. If all of these are in good order, whatever else you add is superfluous, and not a dream-killer. If you’ve reached a time in your life where roughing it is not an option, add 12-volt systems to the list—a complete wiring, charging system, and battery upgrade can become expensive. And if you’re single-handed, plan for a self-steering vane or an autopilot, both of which can bump up costs. Our article on a do-it-yourself survey can point you in the right direction.
  3. Too-short shakedown. Not until you sail and spend time on your new boat can you fully appreciate what you actually need. One sailing season is enough to come up with a working list, but more needs will become apparent as you cruise. A comprehensive shakedown will also give you a clearer picture of how to budget for your refit.
  4. Impulse buying. As soon as marine marketers capture your email address, you will be inundated with offers on tempting products that you don’t need. An LED mast light is nice to have, but if your existing mast light works and your steering cable looks iffy, deal with the steering cable first. Our article on used gear chandleries offers some good advice on finding secondhand bargains.
  5. Electronics infatuation. It always makes me sad when I see a blistered boat with a rickety rig equipped with thousands of dollars in electronics and advertised for sale, usually with a note: “Owner has changed his cruising plans.” Electronics are so beguiling to the modern sailor that it’s easy to bump those to the top of your “to buy” list, stealing funds for the more important projects. Save the electronics purchases for near the end of your refit; this also ensures you won’t get stuck with yesterday’s next-best-thing. Need something to navigate with in the interim? Use a handheld GPS; you can always use it as a backup once you invest in a fixed system.  
  6. Cosmetic fixation. Of course, you should be proud of your new used boat, but if your intention is to leave the dock before arthritis sets in for good, then you may have to learn to live with imperfect topsides, silver teak, and some verdigris on your bronze. There will be plenty of time for buffing and polishing and re-finishing your exterior wood as you cruise. Focus first on the maintenance jobs that prevent further harm—deck leaks for example. If you are cruising the Caribbean and want to use local labor, you’ll find no shortage of skilled varnishers and painters in the islands or countries that rim the region.
  7. Captain Blowhard. Choose your advisors wisely. Every harbor has the armchair sailor who is equipping his boat for the world voyage, yet has never cleared the sea-buoy. His list of necessities will quickly torpedo almost any refit budget.
  8. Creeping pessimism. It is one thing to be a prudent sailor, quite another to be fearful or pessimistic. Accept that you can neither predict nor avoid every possible calamity the ocean can throw at you, but with good sense and due caution, your good little ship will overcome them all. Don’t let clouds of doomsayers obscure your goal. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in An Inland Voyage: “I wish sincerely, for it would have saved me much trouble, there had been someone to put me in a good heart about life when I was younger; to tell me how dangers are most portentous on a distant sight; and how the good in a man’s spirit will not suffer itself to be overlaid, and rarely or never deserts him in the hour of need.” 
  9. Failure to detach. It is increasingly difficult to cut off the many comforts of home, much less friendships and family ties. If possible, allow for a gradual breaking-in period—plan several extended cruises, live on the boat during weekends, and shed your accumulated belongings slowly over time. No, you can’t take it all with you—and that is a good thing.
  10. Perfection obsession. Accept that your boat will never be perfect. And accept that your life aboard will rarely, if ever, approach the crisp, sparkling ideal depicted in sailing magazines or boat advertisements. A cruising boat that is being used is continually in a process of becoming. The to-do list will ebb and flow with the seasons, but it won’t ever go away completely. At some point, you and your boat will be ready enough . . . quite possibly, you’re ready enough already.

Comments (13)

Great Blog, Giving insites to yacht owners is a great way to lift the veil about yacht and what it means to have a great refit. On my company site we talk about a refit project that recently experienced.

Posted by: Cedric CC | September 27, 2019 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Great Blog, Giving insites to yacht owners is a great way to lift the veil about yacht and what it means to have a great refit. On my company site we talk about a refit project that recently experienced.

Posted by: Cedric CC | September 27, 2019 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Great article! Re-affirms many of my own thoughts after having recently purchased my first but long-desired dream. I have been preparing mental for many years of owning a sailboat and cruising. And I am currently experiencing many of the issues commented on in the article. Preparation is important in any endeavor in life but absolutely essential for surviving a cruising life. Darrell's list of essential areas on which to focus are dead on. The list outlined in the article should be the "Ten Commandments" of purchasing and preparing a boat for cruising.

Posted by: Capt T | December 2, 2016 3:45 PM    Report this comment

You cruise them, you loose them. Been out twenty years with the same wife. Make sure your wife wants to be locked up with you for extended periods. Number 1 killer of cruising plans.

Posted by: Allen, | November 30, 2016 11:16 AM    Report this comment

loved it

Posted by: seespotweld | November 30, 2016 10:53 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for this easy-to-follow and very encouraging entry-level through intermediate guide for preparing the journey of a lifetime, because "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore! Dream! Discover!!"

Posted by: Anastasius | November 30, 2016 9:19 AM    Report this comment

Great article. Having just refit my boat - a 11 year SF Bay charter boat - for the 2016 Pacific Cup sail to and back from Hawaii, the advise is spot on. I thought I had a water tight boat, but 4500 nm in 7 weeks created a whole new list of projects.

Posted by: Bear Boat | November 30, 2016 9:18 AM    Report this comment

Title said 'refit pitfalls' once you have your dreamboat, create another post on prioritizing the tasks at hand as so well done in "This Old Boat" . Knowing what to do first middle and last is huge. Boatyards are littered with sad project boats that never had a chance to get finished due to overestimating abilities, and and underestimating time and money....

Posted by: Greg Cantori | November 30, 2016 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Doing the work buying the necessities is perhaps the easy part ...finding the companion much more difficult 59 ...the elusive intelligent slim fun comparablely easy going yet feisty enough to bring out the best

Posted by: | June 19, 2013 1:01 PM    Report this comment

Excellent advice

Posted by: Scott L | June 19, 2013 12:06 PM    Report this comment

Truly a great little blog post.
Having completed a major refit on a good old boat, as well as 10,000 miles cruising over a couple years and a couple weeks-long offshore passages with my wife and son, I've come to understand a couple basic truths about this "cruising" business. One is that a boat will teach you a lot about yourself, including your own character weaknesses (I tend to get too frustrated and over-react to the inevitable little setbacks...).
The other is that, as several of your points suggest, there are two kinds of "cruisers" (or people, for that matter) -- "talkers" and "doers." A boat will absolutely teach you which one you are.
Your last couple points articulate this beautifully.

Posted by: Unknown | June 19, 2013 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Boat reviews link is invalid. Page not found.

Posted by: Doug C | June 19, 2013 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Owning a boat is always a work-in-process; never comlete.

Posted by: Capt Chetco | June 19, 2013 10:40 AM    Report this comment

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