When Simon and Sally Hardaker set out with friends to buy a boat suited to long-distance cruising they encountered a tricky second hand boat market considerably changed in recent times
For much of the past decade, my wife Sally and I have been dreaming, planning and saving up to sail off on an adventure, together with our friends of the last 25 years, Nigel and Catherine Langhorn. Like many, the long and sometimes painful process of searching for a boat began online, before talking to brokers and finally, going and looking at boats.
We encountered several challenges in the second-hand market, the first among these being availability. Since the UK left the EU, purchasing a boat in Europe (whatever your cruising plans) and bringing it back to sail in the UK makes you liable for 20% VAT on the purchase price. Unless you can stretch your budget, that leaves you searching in the UK; a fairly small pool as we were to discover.
The internet is a marvel for yacht research, but still relies on yacht brokers entering the details accurately and keeping them up-to-date. For the last couple of years, the market has been ‘hot’. Good boats come on the market one day and are snapped up the next, sometimes even before listing. We experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of buying a boat over the last year.
The bad: boat one
First, we found a great heavy displacement Contest 48 that looked sea-kindly. The boat was ketch-rigged; I saw this as providing some flexibility in sailplan, but you could not argue with the alternative view that there was twice as much rigging to replace when the time came. She was well looked after and upgraded, but had a teak deck in dire need of replacement – a probable deterrent to prospective buyers. We researched the options for repair and offered a price to reflect that.
The owner accepted our offer. We paid our deposit to the broker and the boat went formally under offer on the Friday. Enter a second broker on Saturday, who despite the yacht being under offer, approached the owner on behalf of his client (ironically first introduced, we heard later, to the boat by the broker we dealt with).
For a quick sale and without any survey, the owner accepted the other offer from the second broker. We lost the boat on the Sunday. Although we did get our deposit back, this was the bad experience of boat buying.
The ugly: boat two
Our second boat was a very solidly constructed Gulfstar 50, built in the US in the mid-1980s, well fitted out for long-distance cruising and offered through a fixed-fee online brokerage. The brokerage supplied the owner’s phone number and left it to us to call and arrange a viewing. From this point on, we dealt almost exclusively with the owner rather than the broker.
The vessel’s particulars were impressive: UK VAT was all paid up, and the boat even qualified as EU VAT paid. There was ‘brand new’ kit in many cases, and a replacement engine had been ordered, in a cavernous engine room you could almost walk around.
Brokerage specifications, though, don’t always give the whole picture, and we didn’t realise by quite how much until our survey was completed.
The boat had not got the EU’s Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) and the UK equivalent, Recreational Craft Regulation (RCR) certification when it was imported. In a nutshell, the vessel entered the UK from the US in 2010, was upgraded in a major refit, and finally sailed in the UK, before being offered for sale in 2021.
The owner claimed the craft exempt, and once faced with the legal facts, was still reluctant to accept responsibility for gaining certification and the probable consequent upgrades required. It took our surveyor to let us into all the legal issues, which the broker should probably have made all of us aware of much earlier on in the proceedings.
With the new engine installed, however, and some acceptance by the owner of how to address the legal issues, we then had to deal with the insurers. They asked to see the survey, and as you might expect, they took a fairly hard line on things like rigging, but we were amazed to hear that they insisted on every single observation and recommendation, however small, being addressed before underwriting the vessel at all.
These included things like repairing a cosmetic piece of cabin sole which really could not be said to be jeopardising the safety of the insured boat. Faced with mounting costs to make good all the ‘repairs’ for insurance, and the owner prevaricating again on RCD, we finally pulled out. This experience goes down as the ugly one.
The good: boat three
Finally, after two aborted attempts and a whole summer working through the issues on boat two, we found boat three: a Beneteau Oceanis 50. Quite different in many respects, most obviously it’s a much lighter displacement boat at 13 tonnes displacement, some tonnes lighter than the Gulfstar.
Conversations with one of our sailing friends, a veteran sailor and the owner of a variety of boats, challenged some of our assumptions about the way we expected to use our boat. These conversations helped us to see more clearly how we could achieve our aims with this type of boat.
The Beneteau was fresh back from an Atlantic circuit, completed over the last two years, demonstrating her potential. She has been comprehensively upgraded for long-distance cruising. Fitted with a water maker and enough solar, wind and hydro-generating capacity, the boat can be self-sufficient in fresh water and electricity, both under way and at anchor, which is a real bonus.
The boat itself was parked up in the yard behind the brokerage and was well known to the brokers. The particulars reflected what was on the vessel. The current owners, having just completed some 10,000 miles in her, were able to give us chapter and verse on how the boat had been upgraded and operated for a long-term cruise.
The process from our first viewing to actually owning the boat took a matter of days – almost – even allowing for a last-minute couriering of a document from the owner to the broker. Better late than never, we were finally on the water and gaining experience of our new ‘home’ in September last year.
We have some big plans. We’ve continued to sail over the winter to discover more about how our new boat works. This year we plan to be cruising in the UK and northern Europe to begin with, before heading off on the ARC+ later in 2023.
If buying a second-hand boat is your dream, I hope the challenges we had may be useful considerations before sailing away on your own adventure.
Lessons for buying a second hand boat
We know a lot more about VAT, RCD and RCR now. The RYA website was a terrific source of information and its legal team offered expert advice by email and phone which we found invaluable throughout the process.
Take good advice
We experienced a mixture of ‘practice inconsistent with professional guidelines’ or laissez-faire, as we might charitably call it. There was a real lack of knowledge of current regulations from some of the people we dealt with. Overall, though, we learned to appreciate the contribution a good broker can make in oiling the information flow, assuring on legal aspects, checking that the paperwork is correct, and that the process is executed in a timely manner. If you’re a buyer, you may just have to work harder with the fixed-fee online brokers.
Find a good surveyor
A good surveyor sees your prospective pride and joy without your rose-tinted spectacles. Ours advised not just on the RCD aspects, but covered in detail with us all his observations and recommendations so we were well aware of what we could be taking on. They are worth the money – ours most certainly was.
Dealing with insurance
Be aware of the view that underwriters may take. Our experience in boat two was of an insurance underwriter that did not fully comprehend what they were reading in the survey report, potentially introducing a whole raft of additional costs. An insurance broker helped for boat three, and we’d use one again.
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