When Dominic Johnson’s dream of owning a boat finally became reality, the litany of errors he made when purchasing and maintaining her sapped both his energy and his bank balance

Just about every middle-aged man dreams of buying a boat and going on a sailing adventure. The sense of freedom, the wind blowing across your balding pate without a care in the world. At least, that’s what any conversation at a 50th birthday party will lead you to believe.

When I was £10,000 and two broken engines deep, I realised the reality was very different.

On the way back from another unsuccessful trip to fix my boat, my unsuspecting daughter called. After enduring at least 30 minutes of me ranting about my boating woes, she interrupted, joking that she wanted to record the call and give it to her friend whose husband wanted to buy a boat. Listening to my misery was surely enough to make anyone think twice.

Short of recording that call, this article is the next best thing. If you or anyone you know is looking to buy a boat, this is a story of how not to do it.

My boat-buying started with a simple plan: buy a cheap boat, sail around the UK, get 3,000 miles done, pass the Yachtmaster, and then sell the boat for roughly what I paid for it. In the words of the eternal optimist, what could possibly go wrong?

Paddling out to his own boat on a mooring was a highlight of ownership for Dominic

The advice I got from a sailing instructor was to buy a cheap 22ft Sonata with an outboard. I was told it would be an easy boat to sail and that there would be plenty of them up for sale.

After sailing as crew and being told exactly what to do, I felt I needed to be a skipper in order to be a good Yachtmaster. My first stop was a boat yard in Rye where I’d seen loads of tired old boats.

A quick jet wash and I’d be away, I thought. I was thinking no more than £3,000. There was only one boat for sale, a Contessa 32 as old as the hills and twice as tired, a snip at £15k. Thankfully I passed.

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I should point out that this was just after lockdown and everyone wanted boats (and campervans). I don’t think there was a sellers’ market like it for 100 years, if ever.

I then phoned up a dealer who told me that you either bought a project boat (needing a complete refit) or you pay proper money. What you do not do is pay a reasonable amount for a boat thinking it’ll only need a good clean. This was lesson number one ignored and mistake number one.

The mistakes stack up

I started looking around but everything was selling so quickly. My next bad move was getting impatient and changing my spec. I ignored the warning signs, ploughed on and brought a 40-year-old Jaguar 25 for £5,000. It was tidy but had an inboard petrol engine which was leaking exhaust fumes and stank of fuel.

From this point on, the mistakes kept coming. The boat had undergone a survey done in 2019 so I didn’t bother with a new one. I only took it for a five-minute test sail. I didn’t ask anyone else to see it and I paid a deposit before the test sail. I was now the proud owner of a boat I was totally incapable of maintaining.

Dominic Johnson is a self-proclaimed ‘enthusiastic amateur’ when it comes to sailing.

In the coming months I went on a few adventures with one of my best friends who was an experienced sailor. They say the only days you enjoy as a boat owner are the day you buy and the day you sell, but I don’t agree with that. We had three of four fantastic, if largely bodged, trips. They were real adventures and it was such a laugh.

As a middle-aged, middle-class, desk-job worker, there were few opportunities for adventure until I owned a boat. Drinking beer and sailing into the sunset or sunrise with great company and the feeling it could all go wrong any moment really makes you feel alive.

My plan was to move the boat from Gillingham to Rye where I had a house. This would be a simple trip, I thought – an easy passage. Well, the inboard broke almost immediately, the boat leaked water from windows and fuel into the sump. It was a floating petrol bomb.

After a few aborted attempts – tangles with wind farms, dolphin spotting, engines not starting, sailing into wind for 10 hours in 10ft waves and a night grounded in the mud – I finally made it.

Highlights of this trip were numerous. I’ll never forget the night I spent sitting on the side of the boat listening to the dawn chorus and waiting for the tide to change. It was beautiful.

What then followed was a miserable summer trying to fix the engine rather than sailing. The summer before I owned a boat I did 400 miles. The summer with it, I only managed about 100.

Lifting the boat out of the
water at the start of the refit

One of the major issues I had with my engine and just generally working on the boat, was access. When you think of boat renovation you think of sunny days, sanding the hull with a look of expertise on your face. You don’t think of being stuck in tight spaces, covered in oil and constantly banging your head.

At the end of the summer I’d had enough and decided to sell. But as one potential bidder said, all you want from a boat is a nice tidy cabin and a reliable engine. It dawned on me then how important the engine is on a sailing boat. You need a reliable engine to get out of trouble and I think it’s more important than the sails.

In February the following year I decided to get the boat out of the water, fix the engine and get close to the money I paid for it, so that I could take up the many sailing trips I’d been offered whilst I owned a boat.

I then spent three or four weeks rebuilding the engine (having no previous experience). It was good fun, and once I’d finished the engine ran beautifully. I had been told by the yard that there would be a boat mechanic on hand to help get it back on the boat, but that didn’t happen.

Unreliable mechanics

I had real issues with boat mechanics during my time as a boat owner. I hired four in total and all of them failed to fix the engine when it was in the water.

I also had several no-shows when the boat was out of the water. I found them an unreliable and elusive bunch and muttered about them in unfavourable terms to anyone that would listen.

I was quite lucky with parts, having bought a load for £200 when I purchased the boat. In hindsight this should have been a warning sign. Old gaskets can cost up to £25 each, if you can find them, and my engine needed half a dozen.

Arriving at the boat, Dominic found the saloon waist deep in water

Due to me having to wait for parts, the two weeks I’d booked to be out of the water extended to four and the boatyard were keen to get rid of me.

I received a call from the yard to say they were putting her in the water. I couldn’t be there so I asked them to do it and told them I’d move her the next day. Another lesson learned: always be present when your boat is being put back in the water. To cut a long story short – she sank.

Well, it’s a tidal river, so she didn’t completely sink, but when I turned up, the cabin was waist deep in water. I was living up to my family nickname of Uncle Albert. ‘Not only have you managed to sink every battleship and aircraft carrier you’ve ever sailed on, but now you’ve gone and knackered a gravy boat,’ as Del Boy said.

My only option was to pump out the water to see where the leak was coming from. I then had to motor to a slipway to try and get the boat out of the water.

Once cleaned, the engine ran like clockwork

I faced two choices: pay £1,800 for them to fix her (with the chance of getting £3,000 for it – prices had gone back to normal). Alternatively I could just hand over the keys and walk away.

I chose to walk away. I was beyond tired of the boat and was delighted to see the back of it. Without mooring fees, it cost me around £7k in total. That’s about £70 per mile, or £2,000 per trip.

My first summer without a boat was great. I did several trips, loved every minute and it cost me almost nothing. I’m aiming to sail around 1,000 miles this summer.

Will I ever own another boat? Yes, I hope so. I can’t see myself owning an expensive one but I loved gently working on my boat and chatting to others in the marina. Being a skipper of your own vessel can be fantastic but it comes at a price you might not want to pay. I have to face facts; some people are boat owners and some of us just like messing around in boats.

Lessons learned

Join a sailing club – I brought the boat from a sailing club with moorings. This was much cheaper than private moorings and full of knowledgeable people happy to help. The club had free boat-lifting services and was about £75 per month to moor. If you are looking for low-cost sailing, try and join a club.

Be realistic – Solo sailing should be left to the experts. Let’s face it, I spent too much time watching the Vendée Globe and not enough time self-reflecting. I hated solo sailing. It is boring at best and terrifying at worst. I have met and sailed with some really interesting people and I missed this when I owned a boat.

Stick to your plan – You need to know what type of boat you want to buy and where you are planning to moor it. It’s so easy to be enticed into a larger boat or one with a different spec that will be less suitable.

Make a joint decision – If you want a boat and your partner doesn’t, reconsider and maybe look at other options: Ownership clubs, chartering or crewing for others. All the happy boat owners I have met are in it together. It takes up all your time and you will want it to.

Maintenance options – You either maintain your boat yourself or you pay good money to get a marina to do it, but there is no halfway house.

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