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Date: 11 September 2014. Survey a Free Boat.


A while back I met a walker who dreamed of owning a boat. He visited Seaweed while I was on the hard* and we spoke of his desires for a life such as mine. There was an abandoned boat in a boatyard which interested Stanley. I could see why at first glance a fellow might like her. The price was perfect: free. But, free is not necessarily affordable.

*On the hard means the boat has been hauled out of the water and is on dirt.

Seaweed on the hard.

Stan wanted this boat. She was an older sloop and the boatyard offered her for free. To Stan, this was the ideal basic boat to learn on. Something in the range of 30' that he could learn to sail while living aboard too. And because the boat was free, what could possibly go wrong?


Free Boat offered by Boatyard


What could possibly be wrong with a free boat?  Now the boatyard will tell you that when you take title to the vessel they will be charging/collecting storage fees. Instead of having a liability taking up space without any income, they will be getting your storage fee/payment until the boat launches.

Sounds great, right?



If this boat was such a great deal, there are skilled workmen at the boatyard who would have jumped on it, fixed what is broken and then sold her for a profit. Or maybe even lived aboard themselves. They have not done so.

There is a reason. Actually, there probably are a multitude of reasons and all of them come back to a basic dollar bill. This boat will take too much money to become seaworthy, or even lake-worthy. It is usually a bad deal.


Well, I will grant you the possibility of getting a free boat sounds wonderful. It of course offers a lot of hope. However, before you spend the first dollar, there are a few things to do to protect yourself.


If you know a boater -- same size or larger vessel, ask them to take a critical eye to the boat. No, not a full survey, but a look-see for apparent deficiencies that will cost you immediate cash upon ownership. Now if you are not fortunate enough to know a boater who can do this, you will need to hire a surveyor.


Hire a Surveyor, but NOT for a full-blown survey.


Me, who hates to part with perfectly good money, is advocating you hire a professional to take a look at this free boat. This initial visit is not for a full-survey though. No.

Instead what you need is someone with more years experience to take a look at the boat for obvious issues that would make the boat a bad choice. He can be your eyes too, especially if you are a long way from the boat.


Prior to my purchase of Seaweed, I hired a local surveyor to visit the boat and tell me if the pictures shown online were current. On a boat far from your locale, neither you nor I know for certain if those photos were taken this past month or ten years ago.

This visit cost me $75 in 2008 so figure on $100 or so today for the same service. The surveyor probably spent less than 15 minutes on the boat and was able to give me a professional assessment that the boat was worth pursuing.

Equally probable, he could have said "forget this one" and that would have been valuable to me as well. I was paying for local knowledge and felt it was worth the money spent.


Your surveyor will be able to see if the chain plates are rusted and weeping, if the cabin sides show signs of delaminating, if water damage is apparent around windows and hatches, and possibly if the bilge is awash in fuel, oil, or worse. (Can you say holding tank?!?)


The surveyor is not going to crawl through bilges, open lockers or do any of the things you would expect from a full-blown survey. Indeed, he might not even be granted access to the inside of the boat and in that case would just look in from outside. Still, in my view this look by a professional will be helpful to a neophyte, or someone far from the vessel.

The "real" survey should find things like this HOSE ISSUE on a Westerbeke generator.


The survey can save you from yourself. It is not just the major problems that cost however. A multitude of minor ones can quickly sink a budget and your cruising dreams.


Undoubtedly your free boat will need some items.


There is one book I advise all folks who are getting serious about the nitty-gritty of boat ownership to buy. That is Don Casey's This Old Boat, and do purchase the latest edition. In it Casey describes not just what needs fixing and how to do so. The most important aspect he explains is how to prioritize the projects. This Old Boat, Second Edition will help folks get on the right track when problems seem insurmountable.

Before you own this free boat get yourself to West Marine or Defender and pick up a catalog. There are some pieces of equipment that the boat will not come with. Or, if the gear is there, it will not work. Know that if these items functioned, someone would have taken them by now for their own boat. The catalogs will offer prices too, which is helpful.

You will need:

  1. A battery (at least one)

  2. A bilge pump

  3. Storage at the boat yard -- fees vary. Does the yard allow you to sleep on your boat?

  4. Dockage at a marina. Are you allowed to live aboard at the marina?

  5. A boarding ladder so if you fall into the water you can save yourself.

    Of course if you're going to be anchored out, you will also require:

  6. Oversized anchor, chain and rode. Some areas with changing tides need two anchors for a secure hold on the bottom.

  7. Anchor Light (LED version so it will not use too much of your available battery power)

  8. Charging system for the battery -- solar, gasoline generator or wind generator

  9. And I would suggest an anchor ball (black, be legal -- even if no one else is!)


Seaweed displays an anchor ball, plus both solar panels and a wind generator recharge my batteries that provide power for the anchor light -- along with the other accoutrements of my rather decadent lifestyle.


Also, if your boat is going to be anchored, you will need oversized ground tackle (anchor, chain, rode) and none of that is free. Definitely ask experienced folks who anchor out their opinions.

Do not ask folks who live in a marina what size anchor to get/use. Often marina hoppers are not experienced at anchoring in varied conditions. So get yourself into a dinghy and row out to a few cruising boats and ask them. Fellow cruisers who regularly anchor know what works, and what does not. In the world of anchoring, size counts.

Of course you will need a way to get to and from your boat that is anchored. So, look online (Craigslist) or around the boatyard and local marinas for a used row boat.  And you need oars. If you opt for an outboard motor* you will still need oars.   Sailing dinghies are sought after, and very expensive.

*outboard motor: rather than a little gasoline outboard, I chose to go with a trolling motor. It works, and was less costly. See Trolling Motor Woes and More Trolling Motors articles for further information on that topic.


Another Thing to Consider:


Even if you have anchored your boat in a safe spot you cannot simply leave her. You need to hire a local boater to keep an eye on her. What happens if she drags anchor and damages another boat? Or ends up aground/on shore?  You cannot simply get a boat and abandon her.  That is irresponsible.


And while I am on a roll, those dinky solar garden lights are not anchor lights. Plus they fail. If there is an accident and your boat is not legally anchored, guess who is at fault?  Lawyers make a big deal about shared responsibility and frankly if you cannot afford a legitimate anchor light... but I digress.

Let us say the boat passed the initial look-see and you can handle the immediate costs of bilge pumps, batteries and such.  The boat is free, and still I would advocate you have a full survey. You need to pony up* for a full survey. That survey will offer you a better understanding of what is wrong, what needs fixing immediately, and what can be repaired at a later date.

*Pony up: pay, spend money

If she (all boats are girls) is in the water haul her out, pay for a pressure wash and look at the hull. Examine the rudder for damage. Ditto the propeller. Is the stuffing box okay? Has electrolysis damaged the underwater gear? For anything that looks wrong, ask about costs to remedy. Your professional surveyor will do all these things, and provide a written report afterwards.


When you get the cost and time estimates, triple both. You will (hopefully) be almost close to what actual costs will be. Schedules will not be met, so expect things to take much longer than anticipated. And time costs money. Always.


The whole purpose of spending your hard-earned cash on a full survey is to ascertain if you can afford a free boat. Oft times, it is not a bargain. Indeed far too frequently a free boat is too expensive. Be wise.

Did you have a survey before you bought your boat?
Are you glad you did (or didn't) do so? 

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