New Boat Owners vs. an Old Boat – Wins and Fails

Wins and fails of a first time boat owner

The learning curve of an inexperienced, new boat owner has been a lot steeper than I expected.  Owning and fixing up an older sailing boat for cruising the world has been much more of an emotional roller coaster ride that I was prepared for.  During the first five months, we have had many boat maintenance wins and fails and I’m sure there are many more to come.  I’m hoping we’ve found most of the broken bits, but I fear we haven’t even scratched the surface.  Read on for a quick summary of our wins and fails so far.

What is it like being a new boat owner?

Superficially, everything is great.  Sailing is an absolute joy and the Solent is the perfect playground.  It’s big enough to learn and practice in and sheltered enough to feel safe.  There are  sufficiently variable tides and weather so that no two trips have been even remotely similar.  Our pontoon in Portsmouth harbour is a lovely place to mess about with friends and watch the sun go down on a summer’s evening.  The engine has been a rock solid performer so far.  We’re confident enough in it that we’re happy to turn it off once the sails are up and we’re out of the harbour.  OK, so that took a while but we did it eventually!  All in all, I’m very happy and already looking forward to getting the boat back into the water early next season.

One step forwards, two steps back

On the other hand, boat ownership so far has been very challenging and, at times, really very stressful.  There’s so much to do to get the boat ready to live aboard and we haven’t given ourselves a lot of time to do it.  Every time we step aboard the boat, the list of things that need attention grows.  We have never fixed one thing without discovering at least two other things that are broken.  It’s a voyage of discovery and, to be honest, we’re finding it a bit overwhelming.

If we could just pay professional people who know what they are doing to come in and fix stuff, life on board would be much less stressful.  The budget doesn’t allow that though.  Unless we want to stay tied up in safe Portsmouth harbour, we have to learn how to sort these things out by ourselves.  Self-sufficiency in boat maintenance is going to be essential.  Besides, where’s the fun in spending money watching someone else fix our boat??  Our cruising kitty needs to be spent on cruising, not paying people to fix stuff.  It just seems like an impossibly steep leaning curve at the moment. 

Us vs. broken stuff – What’s the score?

Our biggest problem is that we really are first time boat owners.  We have no experience whatsoever with boats.  I’m pretty knowledgable about how electrics, plumbing and mechanical things work, but I don’t really have any experience of this on a boat.  Ultimately, I type for a living.  Floss is more biologist than engineer and her hearing aid fitting skills haven’t helped so far.

The boat isn’t evenTHAT old!  It was built in 1990, a bit of a spring chicken compared to some.  There hasn’t been a lot of updating done since 2002 though and the previous owner seems to have just removed things as they broke, or ignored them.

So this is a quick summary of wins and fails so far.  If this had been a football season, here’s how I’d score the key fixtures:

The Sails

The boat is cutter rigged, meaning it has three sails.  When we bought the boat we had only seen the mainsail.  The two headsails were neatly packed away having just been laundered, allegedly.  Before we’d even left the safety of Fox’s Marina, we had a major fail with the discovery that our staysail had been condemned by a local sailmaker eighteen months before we’d bought the boat.  When we hoisted and unfurled it for the first time we tried to convince ourselves that the damage was only in the U.V. protective covering.  In our hearts we knew that our failure to do our homework properly before buying the boat was going to prove expensive.   Sails 1-New boat owners 0

The Windlass

The windlass is the heavy duty electric winch for the anchor chain.  The battle with the windlass was a difficult match, with the lead changing many time over the summer. It started out well in Ipswich, with a pre-sail check appearing to show that it was fully functional. Windlass 0 – New boat owners 1

Things rapidly changed when we came to use it for the first time while sailing in the Solent.  We discovered that it would only pull the anchor chain back in and wouldn’t wind down.  Also, it wouldn’t stop winding up unless we turned the power off at the mains.

New boat owner windlass maintenance

Many hours were spent sitting with feet in the anchor locker, swearing and hitting things with a hammer

The clutch was seized too so we had no hope of anchoring up for lunch in the sun. We consoled ourselves by looking on the bright side: it would have been worse if we’d dropped the anchor somewhere in the Solent and then not been able to pull it back in again. The score was Windlass 2 – New boat owners 1 and now we couldn’t safely take the boat out until it was fixed.  FFS.

In an attempt to fix the anchor problem, Floss spent a full day perched on the pointy end of the boat with her proper sweary head on, trying and failing to strip it down to release the clutch. Windlass 3 – New boat owners 1

After investing in a pulley puller, shed-loads of grease and a whole Saturday, we managed to get all the mechanical bits stripped, cleaned, lubed and replaced. We were now able to deploy the anchor in an emergency. Windlass 3 – New boat owners 2

Windlass maintenance

Pulley puller and lots of patience required

Next stop was S.L.Spares and several phone calls to the lovely John to find out why the windlass would start to wind upwards as soon as it was powered up. We concluded that the solenoid was knackered and decided to replace it rather than trying to strip it down and clean it up. Fitting the replacement was actually pretty easy and levelled the score to Windlass 3 – New boat owners 3

Windlass solenoid diagram, easy for new boat owners

Windlass solenoid diagram found on the back of the cover.

Windlass solenoid

Naked windlass solenoid

Almost straight away, the windlass scored another goal as it demonstrated exactly the same behaviour with the new solenoid as with the old. Stuck in “up” as soon as you powered it up. Bloody awesome.  Grrr.  Windlass 4 – New boat owners 3

Another four hours and another whole weekend was spent tracing the wiring around the boat before the culprit was found. Somewhere in the rat’s nest of spaghetti between the solenoid and the cockpit, there’s a short.  Disconnecting that, and just using the controller in the chain locker, make the windlass behave beautifully.  We still can’t use the windlass from the cockpit, but I’m going to declare a draw.  Windlass  4 –  New boat owners 4

The Hot Water

We have a hot water tank on the boat which is heated by either the mains electricity supply or the engine.  Getting hot water has been a saga that’s gone on longer than the windlass.  Initially perfect, the over-pressure valve stuck open on the trip home from Ipswich, flooding the aft cabin. I’ve replaced that, and we briefly had hot water again when we ran the engine. That now appears to have stopped working, coinciding with a loss of cooling water in the engine. But we still had the electric immersion heater to help out. But now that’s stopped working too. Final score Hot water 3 – New boat owners 2   Sob.

Hot water tank in a sailing boat

The offending hot water tank and relief valve

The Music Player

The boat had an ancient car stereo with a six CD changer, wired up to speakers in the saloon and in the cockpit.  The CD changer works like a dream, and the kids are hypnotised by the miracle of CDs being music that you can touch. The head unit however is knackered, with only one of the four channels working.  A sexy modern replacement with flashy lights arrived yesterday.  However, I have my doubts about the state of the speaker wire and the speakers.  We’re now in extra time.  It’s anyone’s guess how this will end.

The Bow Thruster

This has been an absolute life saver for us novice sailors who bought a boat way too big for their experience.  The bow thruster has worked flawlessly and got us into and out of many tight mooring situations.  That is until we got the bow line trapped in it, blew a fuse and snapped one of the propeller blades off.  I was sent in to untangle the line and bloody hell, the water was cold!   We managed to clear the line.  Replacing the fuse was expensive, but easy.  Now the boat is out of the water, we need to replace the knackered propeller and anodes. Final score Bow thruster 2 – New boat owners 3.  A rare win.

Bow thruster fail. Freeing the lines trapped around the bow thruster.

Fins on ready to free that line wrapped around the bow thruster. The sea temperature in the UK in October definitely isn’t tropical.


Climbing aboard a sailboat up the swim ladder after snorkelling in October

Evan decided if Dad was going for a swim, then so was he!   Dez was beside himself with glee, honest.

Snorkelling off sailboat in the UK

Evan was very pleased with himself after surviving a cold swim around the boat.

Windlass fuse

The toasted windlass fuse

The Shower

An easy victory for us in the heads. The shower worked first time, with no follow on problems. Five minutes with a toothbrush scrubbing the 27 years of accumulated ming out of the shower head, and we were golden. If only we had some hot water…. Shower 0 – New boat owners 1.  Yay!

The Autopilot

This was a real battle of wills. We have a Raymarine Autopilot on the boat with the main system at the Navigation Station and handy electronic controls at the helm.

Initially condemned by the pre-purchase survey, we discovered that it worked like a dream from the nav station and we quickly set up a process of shouting directions down to the kids from the cockpit. The autopilot was a life saver over night on our sail home to Portsmouth, allowing us to shelter under the spray hood as we were battered by a monsoon-esque downpour at 3am.

Night sailing

NO PILOT up here but the autopilot works from down below. This is handy when there’s no shelter from the rain at the helm.

First time boat owners overwhelmed by boat maintenance

Chasing cables

Things improved once we got settled into our birth at Wicor in Portsmouth harbour and we tackled the autopilot wiring.  We discovered that the cockpit instruments weren’t properly connected to the SeaTalk backbone.  It took many hours to figure out the problem but at least we don’t have to replace an expensive cockpit display.  Incompetence from the installer, or sabotage from the previous owner? Who knows? It helped us negotiate a hefty chunk off the price, so this has got to be a straight 4-0 win to us.  Autopilot 0 – New boat owners 4

Autopilot steering while I get my feet up

Who’s driving?? Oh yes, that’ll be the autopilot.

The Water Pump

This is a fixture that’s been delayed on multiple occasions. The water pump, obviously, pumps water from the fresh water tanks to the taps.  The seals on the pump are knackered and there’s a healthy squirt of water into the bilges whenever it runs. It has continued to work throughout the summer so we’ve never felt too inclined to attack it.  It’s getting worse though, so I strongly suspect that this will need to be bumped up the fixture list.  As it was installed in 2001, I’m a bit scared to take it apart.  I see a new water pump in our future.

Water pump boat maintenance

The water pump. I fear its days are numbered.

The Rigging

Oh, the rigging!  We knew that some of the running rigging (the rope part of the rigging) was dangerous and had that replaced well before we ever hoisted a sail.  We knew that the standing rigging (the wires holding the mast up) was much older than the insurance mandated 10 years, so that was planned in and budgeted for.

We didn’t expect to discover that the furlers (the parts that wind in both the headsail and the stay sail) were so old that the only way to get spare parts is to salvage them from really old boats. We initially got lucky as Fox’s Boat Yard had some spare bits cluttering up their workshop that they were pleased to get rid of and fit for us, for free. But it’s looking likely that when the standing rigging is sorted, we’ll be shopping for new furlers.  This is a big and painful expense that we haven’t budgeted for.

We absolutely didn’t expect to find out that the mast was corroded badly enough to consider it to possibly be beyond economical repair.  This wasn’t mentioned as an issue on the pre-sales survey.  So do we go for the huge expense of a brand new mast, wiping out 75% of our budget for preparing the boat for cruising?  Or do we have the remedial work done, still costing a shit-load of money and possibly making the current mast stronger than a new one, but possibly not, depending on who you talk to??

Mast corrosion on a sailing boat mast

To replace or not to replace, that is the question…

We’ve spent the past six weeks researching and talking to a variety of riggers, surveyors and mast manufacturers, every one with a different opinion and few willing to give us a definite answer.  We’re back to our favourite saying about opinions and arseholes….

It has taken a while, many sleepless nights, hours of talking and a few tears, but a decision has been made.

I’ll tell you all about it in the next post.  You’ll just have to wait.

Whatever the decision though, I think the rigging has won this one! 

The Final Score in the Boat Maintenance Cup

So there you have it.  The scores so far:

New boat owners vs. an old boat

Played 9
Won 3
Drawn 1
Lost 3
Yet to be decided 2

I think that means that we’re mid-table at the minute, but I’m expecting a strong finish for the stereo and the water pump once we’re out of the water.  The mast could swing the season either way!

What the numbers don’t show is the absolute joy of being on the water and the simple pleasure of spending all of that time together as a family. I’m looking forward to getting through the long list of winter fixtures and then concentrating on a new season, fully focussed on growing our sailing skills.

We’ve been invited to a June wedding in Falmouth next year, and we’re seriously thinking about taking a couple of weeks off and sailing over there. Given our choice of boat, both literally and figuratively, the world is our oyster.

Love sailing. Financially can’t afford to do it. Emotionally can’t afford not to.  Hoping the new boat owners will win eventually….

4 Comments on “New Boat Owners vs. an Old Boat – Wins and Fails

  1. Oh I feel your pain! Our boat was relatively young too but the list of Things To Be Done seemed to grow daily! Now we’re living aboard and that time seems like a distant (bad)memory.

    • How long did it take you to sort your boat out into a live-able state? We will get there but the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be moving further away right now… :o)

  2. I’m in the “Saving up” stage right now, saving up to buy a sailing boat towards the end of 2018.

    Just this page has made me aware of sooo many things that needs to be checked b4 actually buying the boat…. Thanx so much, the info on your page is invaluable and will be a great help when I purchase the boat.

    I also have to get geared up to make money online with my programming and other sources, have already started with that.

    I’ll be reading your posts regularly, and I’m sure I’ll pick up loads of tips along the way. Who knows, we might even run into each other on our journeys 😉

    Anyone willing to share any info on what to look out for in a boat, what size to buy , how to fund the entire operation etc, feel free to comment on my post.

    I wish you many safe travels, and you WILL win the game, and look back to all the hardships, sweating and cursing with fond memories, knowing that you now possess the knowledge and experience to tackle anything.

    Happy sailing 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Marc. I really appreciate your comment and support. This is not an easy journey and not everyone is so positive about what we are trying to achieve. Good luck with your boat buying. Let us know how you get on. xxx

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