Buying a yacht, especially your first, can be a daunting experience. Duncan Kent offers expert guidance on how to get it right
The process of buying a sailing yacht can sometimes be long-winded and stressful, especially if it’s your first time considering boat ownership. To avoid it being too daunting the first step is to think the whole thing through very carefully and then make a proper plan.
First and foremost, decide what type of sailing you will actually do, as it will be an important indicator as to what size and type of boat you should aim to buy. If you’re still learning to sail then it’s advisable not to buy too big a boat as the bigger it is the more problems and costs you will acquire. It’s often better to buy a used boat that you can practise in and make mistakes on, as accidents can be expensive in a bigger, more valuable boat.
What type of boat?
Key factors to look for in a trailer-sailer are size, weight and ease of rigging, launch and retrieval. Trailer-sailer masts are usually designed to be raised manually using an A-frame and tackle, and in many cases these will be provided with the boat. Being launched from a trailer means that it will most likely have a retractable keel and rudder, as well as a removable outboard motor.
Although it is possible to trail a small bilge-keeled boat, they are almost impossible to launch and recover without a crane, given the depth of water required for them to float on and off. If you’re planning on sailing with the family, bear in mind a retractable keel, whether it lifts or swings up, will nearly always impinge on the cabin in some way.
Above 750kg/16ft LOA you will need a larger (possibly four-wheel) trailer, with a more powerful towing vehicle and a few extra crew to help you rig and launch. In return, though, you’ll have a boat that you can live aboard in reasonable comfort for long weekends, or even the occasional week-long sailing trip.
Ideally, a cruising trailer-sailer would be no more than 24ft long and 1,500kg dry weight all up. If you’re going to be coastal cruising over long distances, however, you’ll probably prefer something bigger like a ‘trailer-able’ boat. These can be craned onto a larger, double-axled trailer and taken home or stored somewhere inland for the winter, saving marina berth costs or boatyard storage rates.
Not only does this make good economic sense, but it could also enable you to tow her to a new cruising destination each season. Probably the largest boat you could self-trail would be around 28ft, depending on its weight, beam and size of the towing vehicle.
Calling a yacht an inshore or coastal cruiser can be somewhat misleading, but since the EU introduced the RCD ‘Category’ system, the designations seem to have stuck. To my mind, any yacht that is seaworthy, properly maintained and has a skilled crew, is very likely to be capable of being sailed pretty much anywhere. A larger yacht may be more comfortable at sea and able to take on more crew and provisions, but a seaworthy boat should be just what it says.
If you plan to simply potter along within sight of land, stopping overnight in a sheltered anchorage or in a marina berth, then it obviously isn’t vital to have a boat that can withstand a storm at sea. You will rarely, if ever, experience storm conditions when you’re never more than a few miles from a safe refuge. That said, some still prefer an ocean-going yacht for coastal cruising ‘just in case’, and there’s nothing wrong with that, provided you can afford the extra maintenance and running costs.
Some experienced sailors swear by lightweight, high-performance yachts for coastal and offshore sailing. There’s a certain logic to this in that a quick boat stands more chance of reaching shelter before the worst of a challenging weather system hits.
My ideal coastal cruising yacht, however, is a compromise between a boat that’s reasonably fast and fun to sail, and one that can withstand the occasional Force 8 and 3m-high waves without frightening or risking the safety of my crew or family.
A true offshore/ocean-rated yacht will be strong, seaworthy and safe but, equally, it should exhibit a sea-kindly, predictable and well-balanced motion at sea, such that the crew remain able to sail, cook, eat and sleep regardless of stormy sea conditions.
What makes a yacht sea-kindly? First and foremost is its motion through, or over the waves. Many modern, lightweight yachts with flat, shallow underwater sections tend to slam into oncoming waves rather than slice through them. This not only jars the crew’s nerves and hurls everything out of the lockers below, but it also puts increased strain on the entire yacht as each thud shakes the hull and rig relentlessly on a long windward passage. Slamming doesn’t just test the integrity of the yacht to its limits, it drags the crew’s morale down and prevents them sleeping, cooking, eating or relaxing while off watch.
As with most aspects of sailing, there are many different schools of thought with offshore yacht design, but it is generally accepted that ocean-crossing yachts should be of a higher displacement than coastal cruisers and that they should have a deeper, vee-shaped forefoot to enable the hull to slice through oncoming waves.
A so-called bluewater cruiser is simply an offshore/ocean cruising yacht that has provision for living on board for extended periods of time under a wide variety of different circumstances. Usually, they will be better equipped with items like watermakers, generators, freezers, solar panels and sat-comms, but the style and design of the yacht itself will mostly be identical to an offshore/ocean-class yacht.
What to consider
Does the boat you’re looking at suit the style of sailing you plan to do? If you’re only going to day sail along the coast then don’t worry about sea berths, for instance, although it’s useful to have at least one long, straight berth you can fix a lee cloth to in case someone becomes ill. Big, central double berths are great at anchor, but of little use under sail.
Separate cabins are crucial if you have kids on board, so as not to keep them awake in the evening when the adults are still up. Private heads are important too, particularly if you are planning to have friends on board regularly.
Stowage is also a vital consideration for cruising that new buyers often overlook. It’s really annoying to have to remove half the contents of a vast stowage bin to reach a single item at the bottom – so look out for easily accessible lockers, especially near the galley.
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It’s important when family sailing to have the mainsail control lines led back near the helm, so the boat can be safely sailed singlehanded if necessary. Try sitting by the helm and operating a headsail sheet winch. Is the mainsheet nearby so you can dump the main in a gust? Is the mainsheet track positioned where young fingers can easily get trapped? Are there plenty of harness attachments? Is there stowage for larger items like dinghies?
Rig and sails
Unless you’re planning on racing, look for a sail plan that’s easily handled. Nowadays most cruisers choose sloop rigs with in-mast furling mainsails; in fact they can often be standard. You will lose a little performance, though, so if speed and pointing ability are vital then opt for a fully battened mainsail with single-line reefing. Virtually all new cruising yachts these days will come with a furling genoa.
Wheel or tiller? Most older boats under 32ft have tillers, whereas most new boats over 26ft offer wheel steering. If you like to ‘feel’ the boat more then go for a tiller. If a wheel seems more natural then go for it but expect to lose a little of the feedback a tiller offers.
Monohull or multihull?
Most new boat buyers start by looking at monohulls, with few giving multihulls a second thought. However, it’s worth stepping on board a few catamarans or trimarans before dismissing them. Better still, give them a try. You might find the level sailing, greater deck space and higher speeds worth the drawbacks of having a larger boat to park and reduced load-carrying capacity.
Cruising cats have increased in popularity hugely in recent years due to the extra space they offer. They also draw very little, so you can get right in close to the shore or creep up shallow creeks where fin keeled monohulls dare not venture. They take the ground easily too, so you can actually park up on a beach.
New or used?
It’s great to own a brand-new yacht but there are many good reasons for choosing a cared-for used boat. Most will have had any initial faults rectified and are likely to come with all the necessary cruising kit. The downside is not knowing how well she’s been maintained. Depending on age, essentials such as the rig and engine could require expensive replacement.
Privately owned boats under five years old tend to be well shaken down, but not worn to the point of imminent repair. Older boats might well have gone through the first wear/replacement stage and have new sails, rigging and engine.
Most equipment, especially engines, lasts longer if the boat is used regularly. The exception is with charter boats, where everything will be well worn.
A charter yacht will endure ten times the wear and tear of a private one, despite being regularly maintained. Never buy an ex-charter yacht without getting a thorough, detailed survey.
Buying a yacht new
Before buying a new boat bear in mind you’ll need considerable additional kit that’s not included. Don’t get carried away with the options list while forgetting equipment essentials. A good guide is to allow a further 15-20% of the list price to fully equip her for cruising.
It’s also worth noting that the price displayed at a boat show may exclude delivery and commissioning, which can add another chunk to the bottom line.
When you find a boat that ticks all your boxes, go somewhere quiet and add up the real cost including any ‘essential’ options. If there’s anything left in your budget, tick off any ‘luxury’ items you’d like in order of preference, until the pot is empty. You might prefer to opt for a slightly smaller boat but equip it to a higher standard.
A word of warning: if you buy the biggest boat you can afford with the intention of adding goodies later, it will almost always cost considerably more than having them fitted at the factory or during commissioning.
Buying a yacht used
Never make an offer on a boat before seeing it. Even if you’re not an expert it’s worth looking for obvious things before engaging a surveyor. Check for hull cracking, gelcoat blisters, evidence of collisions, squashy decks, dodgy wiring, damaged sails, water in the bilges, seized pumps and so on. If the boat is untidy and uncared for it’s likely to have been neglected in its previous life.
Get an idea of the value of that type of boat in basic form by checking prices of similar craft online. If they range from £20-£35,000, for example, start with the lower figure and add on the value of any extra equipment. For instance, if she has new sails, raise the base ‘value’ by £2,000. For a new engine, add £3,000, and so on. When you reach a figure you think is about right, offer the vendor 20% less and see what happens.
Always make your offer subject to survey, then if problems are discovered you can reduce your offer by the cost of any remedial work required. Once a deal is agreed, if she’s out of the water, retain 10% until she is launched and the powertrain is tested.
The test sail
I would never buy any boat without first taking it for a test sail unless it’s dirt cheap. Some sellers won’t want the hassle, but if she’s had a good survey and you’re really keen the owner should realise this and go along with it. If ashore, the launch/retrieval costs will be yours, as will the surveyor’s bill. If you agree to purchase immediately after the test sail you might not need to crane her back out again.
If buying new the broker should have a demonstrator in the water for you to sail. It might not be equipped to your specification, but it’ll be the same model.
If you’re new to sailing, take an experienced friend or surveyor along if possible. Take your family or your partner along too, to get their opinions.
From the moment you step on board keep your senses alert. How easy is it to get on board from the pontoon? How much does the boat tip over with your weight on the sidedeck? How easy is it to walk around the decks without tripping?
Take a camera and notebook and jot down anything you’re not sure about so you can double-check it later.
Checking the engine
The first thing to test is the engine. If it’s a used boat then pull the dipstick before starting it to check the colour of the oil – any whiteness could be water and is a sign of a problem. Make sure the preheat works and that it starts easily. Marine diesels often smoke a bit at first but should clear once the engine has warmed up. Check the exhaust to ensure it’s emitting a steady stream of water.
Try some simple manoeuvres ahead and astern to get the feel of how she handles under power. Some will have noticeable prop wash, especially those with a fixed-blade propeller, but you can often use this to your advantage once you know how strong and in which direction it acts.
Once on the move go up through the revs just to check there are no flat spots and that she revs to the correct level. Few skippers ever use full revs but it’s a good indicator that all’s well with the engine, transmission and prop. Return to cruising revs and go below to hear how much noise is evident, especially in the aft cabin.
Inspecting the rig
Ask the owner to show you where all the sail controls are, don’t just let them sail you around. Helping to hoist sail will show how easy or difficult it is and make handling or gear problems obvious. If it’s hard to hoist a halyard, ask why. The solution might be simple (often a lack of maintenance in a used boat), but it need not be insurmountable.
Check the headsail furler if it has one, by unfurling and refurling it. If it’s stiff to furl, check the swivels for wear. It could simply be poor maintenance, or it might be something more serious like halyard wrap or failed bearings.
Once the sails are hoisted give them a good inspection, particularly along the seams and around the clew, tack and reefing cringles (metal grommets for control lines).
Once you’re sailing, ask to take the helm or have your experienced mate take over. You’re looking to see how well balanced she is (assuming the sails are trimmed correctly), and how reactive the steering is.
Ideally, the helm ‘feel’ should be light but positive. It should feel like you’re just there to change direction if needed, not to keep permanent pressure on to hold her on course.
If the steering is noticeably heavy, you have too much sail up or they’re not trimmed correctly, but it’s worth asking the owner or the rep about it.
All points of sail
Put in a few tacks to see how quickly she comes around and how well the deck gear functions. Try her on every point of sail – close-hauled, reaching and running, to see what she’s capable of and if she has any particular foibles.
Depending on the sea conditions, see how she handles with a bit too much sail up and if possible how she copes in strong gusts. Then find out how easy it is to put a reef in.
Check the navigation instruments are all functioning as they should and, if it’s a particularly complicated system, ask the owner or the rep to go through all the nav instruments with you. Finally, hand the controls over to someone else and go below to see what it’s like under sail. Take note of steps, grab handles or bars and fiddles, and then simulate going to the loo, preparing a meal, lying in a berth or plotting a fix at the chart table.
Buying a long keel yacht
The extra drag created by their large wetted area makes them relatively slow compared to more modern designs, but they provide a comfortable ride in heavy seas, with the fullness of the keel limiting leeway and helping to keep the boat on a straight course downwind with little or no adjustment to the helm. Popular for ocean cruising but poor at manoeuvring under power in tight marinas.
Buying a fin keel yacht
Cutting away the forefoot of a long keel reduces the hull’s resistance to tacking and manoeuvring, while also lessening hydrodynamic drag and thereby increasing speed. Many have ballast bulbs at the bottom to lower the yacht’s centre of gravity (CoG). The resulting short, deep keel makes a boat much more agile.
Buying a twin keel yacht
Also called bilge keels they provide low draught for shallow water cruising and allow a yacht to take the ground upright without supporting legs. One drawback is increased leeway when sailing hard on the wind, due to the reduced wetted surface, and a propensity to heel more readily, due to the higher CoG. Often kept on drying moorings which can put the keel/hull joint under repeated pressure, so check for GRP cracks.
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