Don’t Let Refit Pitfalls Derail Your Cruising Plans


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. Id 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 youve done your research, you will almost surely find a practical cruising boat that will serve you well-but will it move you? If youre not emotionally connected to your boat, if it fails to stir your soul, youll 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 youve 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 youve 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 youre 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 its 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 yesterdays 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, youll 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. Dont 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 mans 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, youre ready enough already.
Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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