Nearly four years ago I decided I wanted to buy a boat.
I’d been sailing other people’s boats for years and when I ran my own cruises the most difficult and frustrating part was always gettig the crew together. If, I reasoned, I had my own boat, I wouldn’t have to charter and, if it was small and easily-handled enough to sail single-handed, I could do without crew.
So I decided to buy a boat.
“A new starter motor will set you back £200 or so and another £500 for the exhaust manifold. Plus fitting. So you’re looking at a thousand quid to get it working.” So said Pete the mechanic on inspecting, and failing several times to start, the engine. It was a Volvo Penta MD2B and of 1975 vintage, like the rest of the boat. Its failure to start just off the Hamble had necessitated cutting short our proposed gentle two-day expedition to Hamble and Cowes from Tyro’s berth at Kemp’s Quay on the River Itchen in Southampton. We’d had gentle a run south, teaching Lut to gybe safely, and the intention had been to have a look at the Hamble and top up the fuel before heading across to Osborne Bay for a sailing lesson and Cowes overnight. However, after deciding to head back we had a cracking sail hard on the wind (now F4 – 5) back up Southampton Water under double-reefed main and half the genoa (I was being cautious with the rig as it was our first proper sail and it was due for inspection). I was more than a little impressed by her performance on the wind – she seemed to show little evidence of the leeway and failure to point often experienced in bilge-keelers. Then we had a gentle broad reach up the Itchen under full genoa before sailing onto a hammerhead at Shamrock Quay.
The starter motor had been a little dodgy to say the least since I’d bought the boat a few weeks before, and the previous owner had assured me that it was ‘a bit sticky’ and ‘just needed to be used’ (the boat had been standing in the boat park at his club for eighteen months). Since he seemed such a nice bloke, I believed him. Or maybe that was really his belief. Usually it started at the second or third attempt but this time it wouldn’t. And, being a high-compression twin-pot diesel engine, attempts to start it by winding the handle proved beyond my aging musculature, even with the decompressors open. At least the cylinder compression was good. We’d hove-to south of Hamble Point with Lut on watch while I was down below grappling with the recalcitrant power plant. All sorts of pointless thoughts were going through my mind as I did so: What if we run aground? How are we going to get back into our berth? How much is this going to cost to fix? Why did I buy this boat?
The latter was a question I’d asked myself several times over the previous weeks. The answer, of course, is that it looked like a good buy at first sight (whereas perhaps it should have been a goodbye on closer inspection) and although the survey pointed out a few problems, it still seemed a reasonable price. I’d wanted a boat that I could just get in and sail, not a DIY project but at that price (£6000) it wasn’t going to happen – my dinghy sailing days are over and you can’t eat and sleep in one either. I’d negotiated a reduction based on the survey anyway, after my initial offer on the asking price (£7000) was, to my surprise, accepted. The saving was swallowed up immediately in a repair to the fibreglass at the front of the starboard keel root, overhauling the stuffing box/stern gland and servicing the seacocks controlling the heads pipes together with replacing their bronze flanges – all jobs that the surveyor had specified.
Most of the other work that needed doing I could do myself – cleaning the sacrificial anode; securing and modifying the gas system; fixing the navigation lights; cleaning the rust off the engine and locating the source of the leak(s) causing it; replacing various bits of pipe and all their clips; servicing/replacing the fire extinguishers; replacing the rusted clips on the heads pipes; checking the electrics and upgrading where necessary; freeing and servicing the opening windows; inspecting the anchor cable; extending the bilge pumping arrangements; upgrading the fuel shut-off valve; finding and rectifying the leak over one of the bunks; cleaning the mildew out of the lockers and elsewhere; testing and overhauling the heads; testing the electronics; cleaning and regreasing the main hatch slides; cleaning the decks; having the rigging inspected; fitting jackstays; making the sliding chart table slide; stowing all the boat’s and personal gear; cleaning the sink; replacing the broken table socket; and all the other 1001 jobs that need doing before the boat can really be considered fit for sea.
It had all started back in January when I finally decided, after many years sailing other people’s boats and over a year annoying my friends by talking about it, that I’d buy one of my own. I had pretty clear ideas about what I wanted: a boat of 25 – 30 feet that I could sail singlehanded but had room for two or three others, built of GRP to minimise maintenance (ha!) and a bilge-keeler so she could sail in shallow water in creeks and estuaries in Essex and elsewhere and take the ground easily, reducing the costs of mooring and winter storage ashore. I also had a long list of secondary requirements:
- an engine of 15 – 20hp for plenty of power coupled with fuel economy
- cooled by fresh water to reduce corrosion and enable it to run a domestic hot water system
- control lines led back to the cockpit
- plenty of cleats on deck
- set up for shore power with distribution board, immersion heater and battery charger
- cabin heating
- a decent galley with an oven
– and many more. All of this had to come in at a total maximum cost of £11 400 for purchase and running it (including mooring and insurance) for the first year: I’d sold some shares which had cost me next to nothing in the first place and this was the pay-off. If I decided after the first year that I wanted to continue I’d then start to dip into my savings, given that my limited income wasn’t going to cover it. If not, I could sell the boat and recover most of my costs.
Research on the interweb kept on coming across ‘Boatshed’, a network of yacht brokers all over the place with thousands of boats on their books. Their search page turned up many that seemed suitable, most of which belonged to one class: the Westerly Centaur. This is a 26 foot GRP bilge keel yacht built in Waterlooville from 1969 till 1980. 2444 of them were built and sold, making it the most popular class of British boat ever made. This and the fact that many of them were still about up to 46 years after building seemed encouraging and I learned that there was a Westerly Owners’ Association, an article on whose website came to the conclusion that the Centaur was the best of their 71 models. Other boats were also considered – Thames Mirage 28 and Colvic Sailer 26 kept coming up, amongst others – but I eventually settled on a short list of six, four of which were Centaurs. Since I wanted to visit and inspect them all in a single trip (my home is a long way from the south coast, where I wanted to keep the boat) I arranged to do so starting at Plymouth and finishing in Langstone Harbour (east of Portsmouth) in two consecutive days in early February. One of the Centaurs was in Bangor; not far from home but a long way to sail it to the south coast where I was intending to keep it, so I decided against it on this ground.
In the dark of an early morning in late winter I set off from Liverpool and headed down the M6 and M5 towards Plymouth. For once the traffic on both was reasonable and the inevitable roadworks only caused minimal delays so I arrived at Plymouth Yacht Haven at noon, as planned.
This was my first look at a Centaur and it was a good example. For one thing it was one of the last ones made, in 1980. The topsides still had its original gelcoat – very well polished – the antifouling also looked in good condition and the bronze of the large three-blade propeller was shiny too. Climbing on board, the broker unlocked the companionway and left me to it. My first impression was of a musty smell which put me off straight away. Apart from that it was much as I’d expected from the details: fitted with hot & cold pressurised water; newish engine with calorifier; shore power with four 240v sockets fitted, battery charger and immersion heater; not very nice but practical vinyl upholstery; lines led aft. In short, it looked like a good candidate with some minor drawbacks, but the smell put me off: I should have realised that this was easily rectified and inevitable in a boat that had been ashore and closed up for over a year. Also – and more seriously – the cabin sole (or floor, dear reader, if you are of a less nautical turn of mind) appeared to be in one piece and fixed down, so that it would have been impossible to come at the inside of the bottom in an emergency – or even just to clean out the bilges. It was a possible, but I was discouraged by its apparent drawbacks. And the price – this was the most expensive of those I was going to see. And it was going to cost a few hundred to launch it and keep it in Plymouth while I got ready for the long delivery passage to the south-east. And I’d need all the charts… If only I’d known…
So, after a fortifying cuppa from the kiosk to go with my packed lunch, I got back in the car and headed east.
The second boat was in Exeter, a city I’d only previously known from the railway, but I quite easily found the quay where the boat – another Centaur – was ashore. (One advantage of viewing boats in the winter is that they tend to be out of the water and one can inspect the hull, antifouling and (had I known it would be important) the keel(s), rudder and propeller shaft, all normally under water. The disadvantage, of course, is that it’s impossible to detect any leaks or go for a sail.) Again, the hull appeared in good condition and the owner (who was showing me round) had clearly looked after the cabin well. The mast was down for the winter and he told me of the local arrangements for restepping. I was a little put off when I asked about the roller reefing mechanism (I heavily favour slab reefing) and he said it was never necessary to reef – not my attitude to robust weather, I must say. He was similarly cavalier about the very lightweight anchor mounted on the pulpit. However, he’d made a number of interesting and ingenious modifications to the interior, it was clean and well-looked-after, and I marked it down as a possible.
Then I continued east to Christchurch where I’d booked a B&B for the night. Finding it with no difficulty I settled in and (after a shower in the tiny ensuite) went for a stroll in search of dinner and to find the boatyard where I was to see the third boat in the morning. This was successful (although ruinously expensive) in the first respect but less so in the second. However, the following morning I found the boatyard at the second attempt and looked at the third boat. Complete waste of time and effort. She’d been standing in the field amongst many others for two years, and apparently totally neglected in that time. Covered in dirt and leaves on the outside and mildew on the inside. Mast down and all the rigging obviously in dreadful condition; I didn’t even bother to inspect it closely – it wasn’t what I was looking for. The idea is to buy a boat I can just get in and sail. I remarked to the broker that it was grossly overpriced and he agreed! The owner clearly wasn’t bothered whether it sold or not, and I wasn’t about to help him out.
So I arrived at Gosport early to see the Mirage 28. Unfortunately the broker was elsewhere and unable to meet me until the agreed time, but walking down an adjacent pontoon I spotted someone on board the boat I recognised from the photos. By the time I’d walked round he was heading shorewards and we met at the locked pontoon gate just as he was leaving. I introduced myself and he seemed only too happy to head back and show me the boat. She was, as was specified in the broker’s details, very well equipped with just about everything I wanted plus a variety of extra sails, a wind turbine and a liferaft (doubtless in need of servicing). Unfortunately, however, she’d been swinging on her mooring for some years with no attention – and looked like it. The topsides, deck and superstructure were covered in algae and dirt and she was growing a fine crop of weed, and no doubt barnacles, below the waterline. Down below she was distinctly damp (as well as untidy) and much of the copious woodwork was damp and rotten. The gent showing me round (a friend of the owner, who was too ill to sail, and to be there) offered to run her up on the hard so the surveyor could have a good look, and give her a jet wash as well. Nevertheless, even with the cooperation of a clearly very helpful friend and the substantial reduction in price that he hinted at, it wasn’t the boat for me as I didn’t want a DIY project. If only I’d known…
By the time the broker arrived, at the appointed time, I’d more or less made up my mind, but I needed to see all the boats before I made my decision so I told him I’d let him know by the end of the week.
And so, on to Langstone to see Tyro. The owner arrived in the car park just as I turned off the engine and welcomed me warmly. I felt we had an immediate rapport and as we walked to the boat, stored at the far end of the compound, he volunteered why he was selling it (getting on; wife lost interest etc.). She was sitting neatly on her bilge keels (the boat, not his wife), the dark blue paint job looked smart and the black anti-fouling in good condition. After a look round the outside (which looked OK to me apart from the somewhat rusty keels, but what did I know?) we climbed the stern ladder to the cockpit where I narrowly avoided kicking the GPS aerial and was impressed by the slatted seats and canvas cover over the highly polished laminated tiller. I took in the bottom-action jibsheet winches (no chance of losing the handle overboard), the nearly-new mainsheet and the well-varnished washboards but also noted the somewhat damaged spray hood and a few other minor defects. Opening the companionway, we went below and my initial impression was good. Upholstery in good condition, decent-sized table, proper sink with draining board (the first one I’d ever seen except in a boat of more than twice this length) – and no smell. The whole ambience was of a well-looked-after boat.
The owner showed me his home-made sliding chart table (sticking at the moment) above the port quarter berth and chart stowage on the forward bulkhead. He moved on to explain the battery switches and monitoring system, which I almost entirely failed to understand and then showed me the engine. This looked alright to me – painted green and filling its hole. Some rust was evident and there was a little rusty water in the bilge; only, perhaps, to be expected in a boat of this age. He started it up – first time – but out of the water, of course, it couldn’t be run more than briefly. I was less impressed by the pale brown gunk issuing from the cold water tap but was assured that this was harmless and would soon dissipate.
We had a look at the rigging and I noted that the sheets were in good condition but the main halyard less so. This didn’t worry me as I was quite prepared to replace running rigging whatever boat I bought. The standing rigging, although 13 years old, looked OK as well. The non-slip paint on the greater part of the deck was in poor condition and he admitted it would need replacing, and the whole deck needed a good scrub. I thought the anchor looked a bit light (a 10kg Danforth [it later turned out to be only 7kg!]) and stowed rather high up, on the pulpit, but this is, apparently, more or less standard on a Centaur and the chain looked fairly chunky.
Finally he showed me the home-built plywood dinghy with integral dolly wheels, mast, sail, oars and rope fender; this was to be included in the sale, along with its trailer (for which I had no use really), a conventional rubber dinghy and oars, an autopilot and a variety of other bits and pieces. We parted on good terms with a handshake and I said I’d let him know in due course but I thought at this stage that this was the most likely prospect of the boats I’d seen.
If only I’d known.
Back at my mother’s in London I dutifully wrote up my notes in a spreadsheet while she killed the fatted calf
I hummed and haad (haa’d?) for the rest of the week. I went back home and talked to friends. I went through my notes repeatedly. I asked opinions of people, most of whom had even less idea than I about boats. I’m no good at making decisions at the best of times, and when several thousand pounds are at stake it doesn’t get any easier.
Eventually I came down in favour of Tyro: she was in good nick inside; her hull (surely the most important factor?) was in good condition; she was clean and well looked-after; she was in a convenient location (Langstone harbour) with a friendly owner and (not the least important consideration) she was the cheapest of the boats I was considering. So I made the appropriate ’phone calls and congratulated myself on having made up my mind.
If only I’d known.
I made an offer subject to survey of £1000 below the asking price, expecting to settle halfway – and to my surprise it was accepted! The vendor was also kind enough to give me the survey that he’d commissioned when he bought the boat several years earlier and, although I’d need an up to date one carried out, it did enable me to see what the surveyor had thought of the boat then and its underlying condition.
The broker gave me a list of surveyors, one of whom had carried out the previous survey. His price was also comparable with but £20 cheaper than the other one I asked, and he was local. So he got the job. I never actually met this chap but had several telephone conversations with him, and was the recipient (once I’d coughed up his fee) of a 25-page report, largely formulaic but helpfully organised and with recommendations and advice highlighted.
The report was liberally spattered with spelling, grammatical and typing mistakes but the gist was clear – this was an old boat in reasonable condition. A number of important recommendations were made, however, principally:
- The forward end of the starboard keel root had had a previous crack incorrectly repaired, which would need remedying
- The ‘water lubricated bearing’ (which I now assume to mean the Cutless bearing), stuffing box and associated pipes needed replacing
- The heads skin fittings needed a major overhaul or replacement.
These seemed like reasonable jobs to require, and a few more telephone enquiries ascertained that the total cost would be in the region of £1000. Accordingly, I suggested to the broker that the price be further reduced by this sum, and eventually secured half of it, which was reasonable. So I ended up paying £5500 for the boat – but another thousand or so to get these three jobs done. And, since I wasn’t around and didn’t have the necessary experience, I also had to employ an engineer to service and de-winterise the engine.
So, considerably lighter of pocket and somewhat heavier of heart than I’d anticipated at this stage, I became the proud owner of a 40-year-old boat.