Once upon a time, old wooden boats had the good sense to rot away. Not that I’m anti-wooden boat—there are some lovely examples in my home harbor that I gaze upon with admiration every time I pass them. But if sorely neglected, even these beauties eventually rotted away, leaving only an engine block on the bottom somewhere. They also limited the size of the boating public; most people accepted that maintaining a large wooden yacht was beyond their available time or means.
And then along came fiberglass. Molded boats became affordable, required little maintenance, and everybody wanted one. The first owner pampered and polished her. The second owner made a few upgrades. The third owner changed the oil (sometimes). Eventually, the last owner either lost all interest or sold her to a dreamer who was overwhelmed and gave up.
Marina bills accumulated, her condition went downhill, and by the time the decision was made to sell her, there were no buyers. Some are obvious derelicts. However, with the glut of 60s, 70s, and even 80s boats reaching the end of their useful lives, there are few reasons to buy a project boat, when there are many well cared for boats on the market (see adjacent article, “Resuscitating an abandoned boat). Sometimes, there are just too many boats competing for too few buyers. Sadly, it is time to think in terms of disposal. Waiting only incurs additional storage or slip fees.
We interviewed marina owners in the mid-Atlantic, wondering what they did with boats that were obviously past their sailing days. Every boatyard has a field of broken dreams out back somewhere, where boats go to die. First, we were stunned to learn that some owners of the most hopeless hulls still paid storage. Other boats are given away, even those we can’t imagine having any value for parts—stripped boats with their engine gone, sails gone, and the interior destroyed by rot. And finally, many of these hulls are scrapped.
Sell it. When your interest wanes, sell it fast. I downsized from a cruising cat to a sporty trimaran when my children left home. I wasn’t cruising and I realized I missed sailing smaller boats. The cat was easy to sell because it was in prime condition, but it would only have stayed in that shape with considerable effort, which no longer interested me. What if I decide to start cruising again in 5 to 15 years when I fully retire? I’ll sell the sporty boat and buy a cruising boat again, but I won’t waste money and effort on a retirement boat I’m not ready for. Only keep the boat you are actively using.
Sell it cheap. If you don’t have the interest or wherewithal to keep the boat in sailing condition, then have the good sense to move it along to the next dreamer (owner) instead of paying more dockage, insurance, and fooling yourself that you will fix a few things “when you have the time.”
Donate. A quicker variation on sell-it cheap. But it’s not generosity nor will it be accepted unless it is in good enough shape to sell at auction. Additionally, you will have to itemize your deductions to reap any benefit, and if your house is paid for and the kids are grown, it’s less likely that you will. Of course, the boat could make the difference.
State Programs. Many states have programs that greatly ease the cost if you follow their rules. These programs typically favor trailer boats, but some will even collect the boat from the water (California). Check with your state and county agencies to see what’s available.
Recycle. We wish this were an option. Unfortunately, it’s a chicken and egg problem. Without a steady stream of boats coming into a recycling program at a fair price, it’s impossible to pay for equipment or develop markets for the by-product (see the adjacent article “Recycling Options Limited in U.S.”).
Unless you are a boatbuilder, repair boats for a living, or like messing around with a boat more than you like sailing, your first boat should probably not be a storm-damaged boat. The learn-as-you-go approach to boat restoration usually leads to some very expensive lessons.
Having restored a 31-foot Atkin gaff-rigged ketch that was liquidated from a boatyard in the late 1980s, I have a bit of experience. We bought the boat for $6,000, sunk at least five times that into it and sailed for 10 years, so it could be regarded as a success. The advantages of rebuilding your boat from the keel up are that you acquire the skills to be self-sufficient, and you truly know your boat inside and out.
Another success story was the 42-foot Endeavour Lost Boys, which served as a Practical Sailor test platform for several years. The owner, a boatbuilder, purchased her for $18,000 and invested another $40,000 in a refit (including a new diesel). If you ignore the many hours of labor, the boat sold for a profit five years later.
For the industrious sailor who has lots of time, a storm damaged boat can be an opportunity. Here, I’ll share five things to consider before going this route.
- Sistership Comparison. How much does a ship-shape sistership cost? Generally, if the storm damaged boat is not deeply discounted by 75 percent or much more, rethink the project. The used sailboat market is still soft, meaning there are many good bargain boats that are in ready-to-sail shape.
- The Essentials. Is the engine, rig, and essential structure – hull and deck—intact? If not, a long project is on the horizon. Look for boats with mostly cosmetic damage and no structural damage.
- DIY Assessment. Do you plan to do the work yourself, or hire labor? If you plan to do the work yourself, expect to spend a lot more time than you anticipated. The DIY restoration project often delays departures by months—or years.
- Pedigree Check. Is the boat worth restoring? If you aren’t in love with the boat, and it isn’t a highly sought-after cruiser, do you really want to pour so much time and money into it?
- Contingency Plans. Apart from the obvious damage, there are almost surely some hidden problems. If the boat was under saltwater, chances are you’ll not only need to rebuild or replace the engine, you’ll also need to rewire the boat—a tedious and expensive project.
An old adage says that there is nothing more expensive than a free boat, and that would apply to any storm salvage. But if you believe, as I do, that more rescued boats return to sea than don’t, then you have at least one good reason to take up the charge.
Landfill. Expect to pay $200-$500 per foot for hauling and scrapping, depending on the size, distance, and whether the boat is still in the water or sunk. The fee for a smaller boat delivered on a trailer might be as low as $50/foot. Local marinas will certainly know a few local, reputable vendors. They face boat disposal problems every year.
Cut it up yourself. For dinghies and skiffs, this might be possible. You’ll go through some cut-off wheels, the chain saw will need to be sharpened every hour, and in the end you’ll need a new chain and bar.
Don’t forget your protective gear and take measures, such as tenting around the boat or wetting with water, to limit the spread of fiberglass dust. The stainless, aluminum, and keel have some value, but less than the cost of the dumpster you’ll rent to hold the rest. As the boat gets bigger, the work gets quite physical. For larger boats it seems more likely that if you didn’t have the energy to fix it up, you won’t leap at the chance to cut it up.
It’s not yours. Marina owners include disposal costs as a part of their business plan. Small wonder they require insurance; the hope is that the insurance and survey process will help keep boats seaworthy and valuable, help sort out those that are not, and will pay for removal and salvage if they sink in the slip. Some marinas refuse boats that are more than 20-30 years old. They do this for aesthetics or the fear that eventually the slip rent will fall behind, the owner will fall off the edge of the world, and they will be saddled with disposing of a hulk.
State law varies, but generally there is a process requiring an effort to find the owner, a waiting period, and paperwork to gain title… which of course makes you responsible for it. If the boat is sunk in state waters (most are) many states have grant programs that will pay most or all of the moving and disposal cost.
Many states have programs funding the removal of abandoned boats, but generally these apply only to boats that interfere with navigation, block a public ramp, or are a threat to the environment. If the boat is in a marina or private bulkhead, it’s the property owner’s problem.
For older boats, unless it has some classic bronze, scrapping an abandoned boat for parts is probably a fool’s errand. Consignment shops are full of old worn-out parts and they’ll pay you just 60 percent of your selling price—usually about 25 percent of the part’s value when new. Not everything sells, and much sits around for years.
For our take on consignment shops, read “A Treasure Hunting Guide to Secondhand Boat Gear,” PS April 2011. As for the scrap metal, the disposal company may have been depending on the scrap value of the stainless rails, mast, and keel, and will charge more if those are gone.
If the boat must get to the disposal facility on her own bottom, that also limits what you can remove. If she must be towed, that’s another expense. Best to negotiate this ahead of time. Based on the few efforts we have seen, you should see this as a labor of love, not an effort to recover value.
While other countries have developed industrial recycling solutions for fiberglass waste, in the U.S., fiberglass is primarily landfill material.
Recyclers can shred the laminate for reuse as filler in non-critical applications, such as manhole covers and benches, but these recyclers are most interested in pre-consumer waste. In the case of a boat hull, the fiberglass must be laboriously separated from the non-fiberglass parts. The equipment is expensive and the outlets for recycled products are limited.
Cement kilns fuel is another alternative. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, with funding from Sea Grant (a NOAA program) has been operating a pilot program for five years, wherein boats are stripped of all large metal and mechanical items and shredded using construction debris recycling equipment.
The resultant 2-inch or smaller chucks are fed into a cement kiln, where they serve as fuel (wood and resin) and ingredients (iron and fiberglass) in the manufacture of Portland cement.
Unfortunately, the shredded material competes with hazardous waste and other hard-to-dispose of materials that industries are willing to pay top dollar for disposal. As a result, it costs more to take it to the kiln than to bury it in the ground.
Pyrolysis, a process in which organic materials are heated in the absence of oxygen to break molecular bonds and recover potentially valuable liquids, is another alternative. I was involved in some of these projects in the 80s; they weren’t competitive back in the oil crunch days, when inflation adjusted oil prices were higher than anything we will likely see for a generation.
We wish we could tell a better story, but the best answer at this moment is generally to remove the engine, rig, and keel, and smash the rest. Just so much more inert material buried. It came from the ground, and back it goes.
Nobody wants their boat to reach zero value. We really try to maintain them. But at some point even the best-intentioned owner can reach the end. Perhaps several big ticket items come due at once; the engine is done, the sails are tired, the rig fatigued, and the electrical system is failing. Maybe she sank at the dock due to neglect and the insurance company said it’s on you. But unlike a worn out car that we can turn in to the dealer or get a few bucks for as scrap, the boat suddenly has a considerable negative value. You can’t sell it. You can’t scuttle it.
This is one more reason why end-of-life boats have such low value; the owner must face that after his costs to fix her up and sail her for a few years, he will be paying $5,000 to $20,000 to have her ignominiously hauled away.
Review the list of re-use options. If you can sell or even give her away while she has any residual value, that’s a plus. Failing that, keep her floating. If she sinks you may be liable for clean up expenses, and you will have to pay for salvage and hauling which can be $10,000 or more.
Fiberglass is potentially a forever material. The best way to recycle your boat, as with many things, is to take care of it and pass it on.