Monday, October 4, 2010

Free boats

I have always heard horror stories about free boats- it used to be that a free boat normally “wasn’t worth the price of a match and the kerosene to burn it”. However, that is not necessarily true any more. The recent economic downturn combined with rising costs of boat storage and lower overall demand for boats has made some boats un-sellable even though they are by no means worthless. Regulations for abandoning and disposing of boats have also become stricter, giving boat owners more incentive to offer an unwanted and unsold boat to someone rather then abandoning or scuttling it. In addition, the relative longevity of FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic) means that a boat’s hull often remains sound long after its interior and engine have reached the end of their useful lives.

During our family’s search for a boat, we have come across many free boats in varying states of repair. Some only needed minor cosmetic work, most needed major work of some kind (usually the engine was bad or completely absent) and some were even on the bottom. Every so often we come a across a free boat that is in acceptable condition as-is, but these are very rare. Often they are the result of someone being unable to pay their slip fees and not wanting to go delinquent on a payment. Another reason (more common with wood boats) is that the owner simply lost interest in the boat and would rather give it to someone who will take good care of it than sell it. Trailer-sized boats are often given away in good condition because they don’t have a trailer (or the trailer is damaged).

Historic (or just old) wood boats are often available for free. Almost all of these boats need substantial work. Most often there are major repairs needed that the average boatyard cannot perform. There can be excellent value in these boats if you like large projects, have the time and skills (or money) necessary for restoration, and are committed to maintaining a wooden boat. A typical free wooden boat needs some form of bottom work, ranging from simple repainting to complete re-planking or refastening, or even reframing. Many of these boats need major restoration of the deck houses, spars, rigging, engines, and interior as well. Occasionally, however, you find a wood boat that needs only minor repairs. Wooden boats are often offered for free or cheap because they can be time-consuming (and expensive) to maintain, and it’s not always easy to find a buyer with the resources to put into them.

Here is an example of a typical free boat: We were offered a Clipper Marine 30’ trailer-sailor from the 70’s without an engine or trailer. The owner had been planning to drive it to Arizona and restore it, but found the cost of custom trailers prohibitive. After failing to sell it, he offered it for free to get it out of the slip. The hull and decks were sound, and both needed paint. The standing rigging and spars were in decent shape but the running rigging needed to be replaced. Most of the interior needed work of some sort, and parts of it needed to be totally replaced. Because it was narrow for its length and did not have standing headroom (not good for living aboard), and because it had not been an especially high-quality boat to begin with (it would not be a good time and money investment), we chose not to take it. It would have been an excellent boat for the right person, and the price was right.

During out search for a boat I have compiled a short list of places that regularly have free boats:

Craigslist: Probably the best place to look for free boats. Almost every day there are several advertised. Select your city, then go to the "boats" or "free" sections.

Bone Yard Boats: Online listings of free boats. They also publish a newsletter with listings for free and inexpensive (up to $10,000) boats.

WoodenBoat Publication’s online classifieds: There is a section for free boats.

Wooden Boat Rescue Foundation: Listings for free wooden boats.

There are other sources such as talking to marina owners, looking in local classifieds and similar places.

Now for the inevitable warning about free boats: Remember that most of the time you really do get what you pay for. Always go over a potential boat carefully yourself and, if possible, have the vessel surveyed by a qualified professional to avoid nasty surprises later on. There are some really good boats being given away but there are also a lot of boats that will cost much more to restore then the finished boat will be worth. If, however, you are looking for a boat to customize and make your own and have no intention of selling it anytime soon, then free might just be the right price.

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