But, alas, I am not very good at following my own advice. Of the five major boats I’ve owned, not one was surveyed before I bought it. In fact, I’m almost ashamed to admit that two of them were mail-order boats — ones I found on the Internet and bought sight unseen.
I don’t know whether I have a special talent for sorting out the winners from the losers, or whether I’ve just been plain lucky, but I never regretted any of those purchases. Nevertheless, if someone is not willing to gamble, as I am (and lose gracefully, if necessary) then I still think a professional survey is the way to go on anything worth more than, say, $5,000.
It occurs to me, however, that you can save money by doing your own pre-survey survey. By that, I mean you can take a good look at a boat and decide whether you would like to buy it if a professional survey showed it to be sound.
There are many bits of boats that can’t really be tested without destroying them. There are also many bits that are hidden, and whose integrity cannot be established. You will note that survey reports are replete with ifs and buts and legal sentences that mean “I can’t guarantee that this boat is seaworthy or even fit for the purpose of the survey.” On the other hand, an experienced surveyor will use survey language in certain ways to indicate that he thinks this one is in pretty good shape for its age and it’s probably as good any other of its kind, and if it was up to him, he’d make an offer for it.
Now, what can you do before you call in the surveyor? Well, for a start, try to persuade the owner of the boat to leave you alone on board. It’s very inhibiting to have him or her hanging around while you poke in all the private places of the object of his affection. It’s like asking if you can undress his wife and have a good look. Well, maybe not quite like that, but very similar, wouldn’t you say? In any case, try to be alone with the boat.
There are four elements you can employ to do your own pre-survey survey. The first two are your eyes and your nose. Use your eyes to look for cracks, uneven surfaces, water in the bilge, oil under the engine, and tell-tale dribbles down below, from where the hull joins the deck and underneath the portlights.
Use your nose to sniff in all the hidey-holes on board. Sniff for smells of mold and rot. Sniff for mud, dead baby crabs, and god knows what in the chain locker. Sniff for leaking gas and engine fuel. A good, clean-smelling boat is a sign that it is being looked after.
The third element is your feet. Stomp all over the deck, the cabin-top, and the cockpit floor. There should be no flexing anywhere, no sign of fiberglass “giving,” no sign of fiberglass delaminating. Jump up and down on the foredeck. Give extra stomps alongside stanchion bases and all deck fittings that are screwed or bolted in place. That’s where water can seep in and rot a wooden core.
The fourth element is a medium-sized screwdriver with a plastic handle. Hold it back to front, with the spindle in your hand, and tap the hull and superstructure with the plastic bit. Tap all over, and use your ears. A solid piece of fiberglass makes a sharp rap when you tap it firmly. Some people say it “rings” but I’ve never heard that. What you’re looking for, and listening for, is areas where the fiberglass has delaminated, so that it is no longer one cohesive, solid piece. When you find a “soft” area like that, the screwdriver will make a duller “thunk” rather than a nice sharp rap. Sometime the difference isn’t much, but you should be able to detect it.
Use your discretion, of course, and rap as gently as you can, consistent with getting decent results. Once again, try to do this out of the sight and hearing of the owner, because nothing irritates a boat owner more than some stranger whacking the hell out of his nice gleaming topsides. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be intimidated, either. It might be torture for the seller, but this is a perfectly legitimate way to assess the structural integrity of a boat you are genuinely interested in buying.
I might also mention that surveyors often use a small hammer, rather than a screwdriver handle, to tap the fiberglass with, but I advocate a screwdriver for most buyers. The sight of an amateur attacking a boat with a hammer is likely to cause the seller to scream.
There’s not much you can do about the engine, except to ask to hear it running, and to check it visually for leaks, stray wires, and excessive vibration. You’ll need to engage a marine mechanic to check it properly at a later stage because most surveyors can’t, or won’t, assess its state of health.
Just looking at the running and standing rigging will tell you whether the boat has been decently maintained over the years and give you a feeling for how much of what the seller is telling you is the truth, and how much is hyperbole, added to furnish verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
If you carry out this cheap and informative pre-survey survey, you should get a very good idea of whether you want to go ahead and call in a professional surveyor. You can show him all the places where you suspect trouble and he will be very grateful. Don’t expect to get a discount on his fee, though. Just doesn’t happen.
There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.
— John Ruskin
In his delirium
He mentioned Miriam,
Which was an error
For his wife was a terror
With the name
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)