Nigel Sharp on everything you need to consider when it comes to buying a classic second hand boat built from wood
Over the last three decades there has been a spectacular classic boat revival, resulting in – and further encouraged by – numerous classic boat regattas and rallies all over the world. Countless dayboats and yachts have been beautifully restored, which inevitably means there are now fewer ‘project boats’ on the market. Nonetheless, second-hand boats built from wood in a wide variety of conditions are still available. So if you’re tempted to buy a fixer-upper, or an already restored beauty, what should you bear in mind?
When contemplating buying a classic wooden yacht the initial considerations are no different to buying any other type of boat: be realistic and honest with yourself about how (and how often) you’ll use it, and with how many crew (experienced or otherwise).
Don’t buy a boat that’s too big or too small, thoroughly research the options for mooring and laying up wherever you hope to keep it and, perhaps most importantly in the case of a classic yacht, make sure you have access to skilled tradespeople to help you look after it.
The condition of second-hand wooden boats can vary massively, from those described as ‘fully restored’ to ‘in need of restoration’ as the extremes. Richard Gregson of brokers Wooden Ships comments that: “Most people should buy the best boat they can afford in the first place,” adding that they are “much better off buying a boat into which someone else has put all the money. Although she might look quite expensive, it will work out cheaper.”
But for some people – who have the relevant combination of time, money, aptitude and skills – it is the challenge of a project that draws them to a classic or wooden design.
Fully restored second hand boat?
Buyers should always be cautious of a yacht described as ‘fully restored’. “So many times I have seen boats advertised as such,” said Duncan Walker, formerly of Fairlie Restorations and now building the Fairlie range of modern classic yachts, “but in reality it can often mean the boat has been cosmetically refitted, perhaps with a new deck but otherwise just new electronics, furnishings and a coat of varnish. Nobody looked at the structure because they were afraid of it.”
This emphasises the vital importance of a survey. “We try very hard to provide buyers with a boat’s refit history,” said Barney Sandeman of brokers Sandeman Yacht Company, “but it is up to them to get to the bottom of the actual condition and what might need doing. We can recommend some very good surveyors with particular expertise in wood, but it’s the buyers’ call who to use.”
One of the surveyors on Sandeman’s list is Will Stirling, who also runs his own boatyard in Plymouth. “People often ask for a ‘cheap walkthrough’,” he told me. “But I always say that there’s only one grade of survey, which is a full condition survey. It wouldn’t benefit either of us not to do it thoroughly.”
A surveyor will essentially be looking out for structural issues, areas of decay and the condition of systems. Generally, structural defects are more likely to be found where repairs have been made rather than in the original build.
One common example of this, Stirling finds, is with the spacing of butt joints in hull planking. Most builders of wooden boats would have followed Lloyds rules with regard to this, but if repairs have been carried out good boatbuilding practices may well have been ignored.
Decay is most likely to result from poor ventilation and fresh water ingress. Typical areas where rainwater might get in include chainplates, bulwark stanchions, mast gates and deck seams, from which any amount of hull and deck damage might result.
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Poorly sealed shower compartments are another area that often leads to problems. In the case of a boat with a laid deck over a plywood subdeck, water penetration through the seams can easily lead to rot in the plywood which might remain unnoticed for a significant length of time.
Problems can also arise where metal and wood are in contact with each other. The extent of this will vary according to timber species and metal type, but a particularly common issue is caused when the galvanising on a steel or iron bolt has slowly worn away, resulting in rust reacting badly with the tannic acid in oak frames.
These issues can be exaggerated when larger pieces of metal, such as frames in the case of composite construction, come into contact with timber.
The epoxy fix?
The use of epoxy on a wooden second hand boat can be contentious. “There is a place for epoxy and it’s often used in a way that is helpful to owners and boatbuilders,” said Sandeman, “but it can be the kiss of death if all you are doing is encapsulating a rotten old boat.”
Stirling believes problems often stem from the fact that modern owners expect an immaculate paint finish, which is usually achieved with epoxies and two pack paints. “But if you mix an organic material like timber with an inorganic material like epoxy, it’s going to cause you grief,” he said. “And it makes surveying really difficult because you cannot find out what’s going on underneath it.”
Gregson agrees that “it’s generally a big alarm bell” when a boat has been sheathed in epoxy, but he does recall a rotten boat whose hull and deck were completely encased in epoxy 30 years ago when the only alternative was to break her up.
“We have sold her half a dozen times since,” he said. “Everyone knows she’s festering away inside under the epoxy but she’s had another 30 years of sailing which she wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
In more recent years, epoxy has often been used to great effect with new builds, whether the hull construction is strip planked, cold moulded or a combination of the two. Strip planked construction is often billed as being suitable for amateur builders, but Walker advises that “the process of building a strip planked boat should be carried out to the same level of skill as any other wooden boat.”
He is not alone in thinking that some hulls built this way are to a poor standard, in particular that they sometimes lack adequate framework on the inside or glass and/or veneers on the outside.
But despite what might seem like a lot of negatives, it should be borne in mind that on a wooden boat, in particular a traditionally built plank-on-frame boat, everything can be repaired. And there are plenty of skilled craftsmen available to do the work.
“That’s the wonderful thing about wooden boats,” said Stirling. “It’s just a question of how deep you want to put your hand in your pocket. The important thing is for a potential buyer to have an idea what needs doing and what it might cost.”
In very broad terms when considering a hull, planking is relatively easy to repair and replace, frames less so (especially steel frames, in the case of composite construction), while centreline components cause the most difficulty because of the need to support the boat without distorting it in the process.
But perhaps the most important thing in the boat buying process, thinks Walker, “is that buyers should use their heads and not their hearts. So many people fall in love with a boat and then buy something entirely unsuitable for their pocket or their experience.”
Attitudes towards wooden boat ownership have changed over the years. “When my father started selling them 50 years ago the perception was: ‘Oh dear, those poor people have got a horrible wooden boat as they obviously can’t afford GRP’,” recalls Gregson. “But now it is more like: ‘They must be doing all right for themselves, they have a lovely wooden boat!’”
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