Don’t Let Refit Pitfalls Derail Your Cruising Plans


After the challenges of the past couple of years, it’s no surprise that many new sailors are regarding the cruising life away as an antidote to the madness ashore. These are not just older sailors who’ve reached retirement age, but also young sailors who’ve been captivated by the many YouTube programs produced by solo sailors, couples and families afloat.

We’ve reached an interesting period in history when a retirement boom, a surplus of fixer-upper sailboats, the normalization of remote work, and a new generation that celebrates the unconventional life are making cruising sailing—an endeavor once reserved to adventurers stricken by South Seas fantasies—seem like a perfectly logical path.

There is 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. I also like offshore voyaging expert John Neal’s list of potential cruising boats.
  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 (get a mechanic, preferably one familiar with the engine model), fuel and water tanks, 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 of items to be inspected. A complete wiring, charging system, and battery upgrade can become expensive and time-consuming. 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. Gradually increase your cruising range and number of days out. Jumping straight from daysailing to a 3-week cruise increases the likelihood of surprises that will spoil your first vacation afloat (like an 12V-system that with insufficient battery storage, or an odiferous holding tank system).
  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 put those at 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 in balsa-cored decks 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. All the travails of our life ashore don’t simply disappear once we’ve freed the docklines. Like you, you’re new voyaging home is always 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.
Darrell Nicholson
Darrell Nicholson is Director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division and the editor of Practical Sailor. A lifelong thalassophile, he grew up sailing everything from El Toro dinghies to classic Morgans on Miami's Biscayne Bay. In the early 90s, he left a newspaper job to sail an old gaff-rigged ketch across the Pacific and has been writing about boats and the sea ever since. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at


  1. There is no better resource than Beth Leonard’s Voyager’s Handbook.

    Beware of the bargain boat. Many sailors are convinced that they can get a boat for next to nothing and fix it up. For most of us, this dream becomes a nightmare. The buyer becomes a marine mechanic rather than a sailor. Because boat supplies are so expensive, sailing magazines are filled with stories of how the intrepid sailor repairs one major failure after another at sea. If your name is not MacGyver, this attitude can be dangerous.

  2. Great article. I would add one thing almost no one wants to talk about, think about or consider. If the bottom falls out of your cruising dreams (boat, illness, injury, too much work, not sustainable, you find out it’s really not for you…etc…), do you have a fallback plan? Maybe you have a home to go back to, or family who will put you up while you get back on your feet. But then again, maybe not.

    I would recommend at least nine months of funds to cover housing, utilities, food and the basics. Twelve to eighteen months is even better. Adjusted for inflation, of course. Reality can hit you over the head like a two-by-four. Not everyone finds they are really cut out for the cruising lifestyle, or even the liveaboard lifestyle.

  3. Very useful article for people new to buying cruising sailboats. Good advice. I would add that most surveyors that I have dealt do not do a through engine test. I recommend, at a minimum, an engine compression test even the engine has low engine hours.