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Mico Verde


“Boat buyer’s boot camp – basic training for going into battle”

This is an article aimed at the first time boat buyer.

This group comprises anyone who has never owned a cruising boat and of those who have, but have never cruised extensively in out-of-the-way places. This could include Mexico, however supplies, spares and repairs are readily available so one should still not consider one’s own skills as suitably “shaken down” until having made a long open ocean passage of at least three thousand miles, arriving in a place where none of the former list is easily found (at least without great expense).

This guide strives to aid the virgin cruiser and novice boat owner in avoiding a very common situation when far from home. You’re thousands of miles away, off a distant island or inside a lagoon when you find that a “little” nagging problem with the boat is actually quite serious and growing more so with each passage. Can you make it to a major port before you have a real crisis? This question can put a big damper on your ability to enjoy paradise.

Many of these serious issues can be dealt with, or at the very least diagnosed, before leaving for the grand adventure. Imagine how much stress you could save by discovering these issues in the pre-sale survey phase. Hot button items can be found by the non-wise during the first once over.

The first point in shopping for a boat that must be understood 100% in crystal clarity before going further is: the selling broker DOES NOT WORK FOR YOU.

At all times, the buyer must suspend any faith in humanity during the transaction and assume the broker wants only one thing – to unload the boat on some fool with a big dream and get their commission check as fast as possible. That’s it. The secondary goals of repeat business and word of mouth recommendations rarely figures into this equation (assume they don’t). If you follow one rule, this is the one to obey completely: Brokers will try very hard to come off as extremely sensitive and seasoned pros, with thousands of miles of cruising and heavy weather passages behind them, but don’t take anything for granted and err on the side of thinking they don’t know anything, haven’t sailed past Catalina in twenty years, and are probably power boaters.

So you’ve been flipping through websites or a magazine and a boat catches your eye. The lines are beautiful, the offer price seems fair and the ad says “Ready to cruise!” You contact the broker and arrange to view the boat for the first time. You may even have to incur great expense to get yourself to the boat, especially if you don’t live on a coast.

Can you prescreen the boat over the phone with the broker? If I were a lawyer and knew how to spot trick language there might be some methods to finding out a little about the integrity of the broker and how much they actually know about the boat but for the average buyer, like me, it wouldn’t be very effective. Brokers are incredibly adept and slick at dealing with nearly any probing question you ask them. Like a used car salesman they often believe that if they can keep talking through any question you have you’ll be placated enough to be satisfied with their answer. This is because most people, especially men, don’t like to admit that they don’t know something and would rather get snowed by a complete stranger trying to sell them a mill stone around their neck than come off as less than an expert. The more you can approach the whole process objectively with as much observation as possible the better.

After everything is done you can decide to make friends but while you’re in negotiation treat the whole affair like war and each meeting is a battle that needs a decisive victory on your end (where more and more information is revealed each time) before you can proceed. Remember that in the end you have the ultimate advantage over the broker and owner – you can walk at anytime you chose. They will do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. This is extremely true in a buyer’s market such as we have now where the economy is suffering and boats are moving slowly off the broker docks. Don’t proceed to the next phase of any part of the process until you’re completely satisfied with the outcome of the current one. If any of this is not enough to make you take the process extremely seriously remember that someday, if you buy this boat, it’ll be your ass and lives of people you care about out there in raging winds and seas while the broker will be sitting in their air-con office drinking a latte.

So what are the basic phases of the cruising boat buying process?

Get to the boat but before you do it’s time for a little pre-planning and homework. I’m not going to list every single little thing you need to check when you arrive onboard. There are numerous excellent lists and guides available (see the reference section at the end for details, especially anything written by the Dashews or Don Casey). You need to arrive at the boat with a checklist of everything relevant to the age and condition of the boat and the know idiosyncrasies of the make/model and engine. Get online and find the owner’s group website for the make/model. These provide tons of insight into the major problems with the old boat over the years and you can add all of these items to your checklist. You can probably even email several owners to get their opinions. Some will have owner-pride, probably the ones who’ve not done much actual cruising but you’ll know right away when you get a good one and they’ll gush info about all the bad things or at least improvements that can be made. In general, men love it when you treat them like experts and ask for their opinions. Use these facts to your advantage!

Print out copies of the list, bring the necessary diagnostic tools in a bag (multi-meter, flashlight, screwdriver with a plastic handle etc) and also try to take someone with you to serve as scribe so you can have all you attention focused on the boat. If you want to really be tricky have the scribe tell the broker that they’re the one interested in buying the boat – this will keep the broker busy with your helper and free you up to do the investigation (use this one only on a very aggressive broker who won’t stop talking). If possible insist that the broker leave you alone for your time on the boat. If they won’t, then assume the worst. Once onsite start ticking through your checklist.

When doing my initial survey of our Westsail I missed an incredible number of obvious clues to big problems. In the oil pan liner, under the engine there was an inch of oil. This should have set off major alarms that there was obviously and oil leak somewhere on the engine but since I had my rose colored glasses on through most of the process it didn't occur to me. It was ridiculous that neither the owner or the broker had even bothered to pump the oil out to make it less obvious! The engine was also very dirty, with points of corrosion and all the fuel and oil filters looked old, had no dates on them and were all of automotive brands (not the engine specific brand that someone who really wanted the best for the engine would have used). All warnings that should have tipped me off and one’s I could have used in the later price negotiations and pre-trip planning.

If all brokers and owners were extremely honest and forthcoming about everything wrong with a boat (and a good owner will know most of them by the time they’re selling) the process would be extremely easy for both sides. However, nearly nothing will ever be revealed to you and you’ll almost never get the opportunity to buy directly from the owner. Owners want a layer of insulation between them and you so they don’t need to feel bad that non of the crucial information you needed was ever passed along. Info on the boat bugs will not be revealed to you as the thinking is that you might be scared away. In a perfect world the broker would provide you with a list of everything wrong with the boat (a list from the owner’s cruising experiences), and the cost of the estimate for repairs which would have factored into the starting price. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world.

Back on the boat, work through your checklist and have the scribe take everything down. I once watched Brion Toss, probably the most qualified yacht rigger in the world, perform a rig survey. He poked around in everything and since he was alone he kept calling back his assistant in his office (even from the top of the mast) to take down notes. You might find you’ve got a tomb at the end but don’t be too alarmed until you start to track down all the repair costs on your own. Take your list home and start talking to boat yards, sail makers, riggers, fiberglassers, upholsterers, diesel mechanics to delve deeper into problem areas and get estimates. Take this total figure back to the broker and let them know that this is a minimum list of repairs and if you’re satisfied it’s time to hire some help and find a good surveyor. You’ll put them immediately on the defensive, but this is not a bad thing.

The next area where I made more big mistakes. You might think that hiring a surveyor who’s worked for the company that built the boat in question and even surveyed the boat several times previously would be a great idea. But in reality it wasn’t since, in my case, having copies of the previous surveys as well I think that much of the survey data was simply recycled and the present condition of the boat not targeted as deeply as it could have been. Living and cruising with the boat for two years I can definitively say that many obvious problems were never identified by the surveyor. I would have been much better off with a surly, fired up, boat geek that had nothing but contempt for my abilities and for brokers. I would have had a laundry list of needed repairs. Remember that this list is not just to “save” you money on the sale but will let you know about potentially life threatening problems before it’s too late. Shop around for a super surveyor, they DO work for you and should earn every dollar and you’ll be very happy in the end with the results.

If the broker gets wise to how educated you are and how thorough they may start to get very nervous. This is fine, if they try to snow you with BS about time running out, “other-offers” on the table right now, just walk away. You’ll be amazed how fast they change their story. As a wise person in Hollywood said a long time ago “it ain’t show-friends people it’s show-business.”

If you’re still moving forward in negotiations at this point, things are really going your way. The surveyor will be very frank with your about the real “cruise-ready” condition of the vessel and you’ll have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. The boat will have a lot of issues, even if it’s only a few years old. As long as you have the data on the problems you can set priorities when the time comes to get the boat ready for your cruise. You can now assess whether you’ll be in Tahiti in four years after the refit or in six months.

If you’re beginning to see a pattern here then you’re right – the morale to the process is that there are tons of resources available to use as ammunition on your side of the battle but you must have the right attitude and not let “the dream” get your way. Some people, mainly brokers will see this guide as an attack on the entire boat buying industry and, well, actually they’re right. The process is terrible and fraught with disaster and pitfalls and we shouldn’t pretend that if they don’t exist we’ll all have seaworthy boats in the end. I hope that if people are offended by this they’ll take that energy and strive to change the morality of the whole process in general.


Inspecting the Aging Sailboat, Don Casey

Offshore Cruising Encyclopia, Steve and Linda Dashew

This Old Boat, Don Casey

Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual, Nigel Calder


SV Mico Verde