Restoring “Surefire”, an Oyster SJ 35 cruiser-racer sailboat built in the mid 1980’s, based at the Manila Yacht Club. This is the author's third boat restoration project.
Culture Spotlight

Before you buy or restore an old sailboat, here’s what you should know

A detailed guide to kicking the tires on an old boat
Rafael A. S. G. Ongpin | Dec 09 2018

The assumption is that  you are restoring a typical fiberglass sailboat, from 20 to about 50 feet in length. Wooden sailboats, as well as steel and aluminum ones, do exist but they are comparatively rare in these waters and are different stories altogether.

The hull is, in effect, your sailboat. If the hull is bad, you might as well throw away the boat. You can’t really check the hull from the inside. Inevitably, you must drydock the boat and check the hull on dry land. You should (and I’m not kidding about this) actually take a small rubber mallet (by rubber, I mean the black, soft stuff, not urethane) and pound the whole hull to look for soft spots. If they are there, you will see them and they will sound different.

The rudder and rear skeg of an earlier project, with the propeller visible in the aperture, all overgrown with barnacles.

Problems can also be plainly visible, in the form of water-filled blisters in the fiberglass below the waterline. Each of these blisters needs to be drilled out and drained, then a chemical is applied to dry them. They are then repaired with a special epoxy, although in the case of larger ones, additional fiberglass may be needed. After this, the whole hull below the waterline is sanded smooth or “faired” and painted with special, rubber-based “bottom paint,” which is designed to resist marine growth. This is a job for experts and is quite expensive, but unavoidable.

Sails are a consumable item. Like tires on a car, they wear out, even if you don’t use them. Unfortunately, sails are a big-ticket item and are the first thing you should save for. A cheap set of sails for, say, USD 5,000 might only last three years, while a USD 10,000 set could last you ten years.

The hull-to-deck joint is the part of the hull continuously exposed to the most mechanical stress, from the boat pounding into the waves (or worse, running aground), and from the flexing caused by the tons of pressure on the mast, boom, and rigging. When a fiberglass sailboat starts to break, this is usually the first place. To inspect this is hard, sweaty work. If you see any evidence of cracking or leaks, even minor ones, this is a bad sign. If you have not yet bought the boat, you may want to reconsider buying it. Repairing the boat in this area is a major undertaking and will cost a lot.

An earlier project, this sailboat was left unused for a couple of years, and was a barnacle farm.

The deck itself is as important as the hull. Walk on every square foot of the deck, and stamp or jump on those where you can. Every deck will have a few soft spots after a decade or so, and you need to find them. Many decks in the last 20 years are “cored,” which means they are made from a layer of foam sandwiched between layers of fiberglass. Leaks that penetrate the outer layers will propagate through the foam, making the soft spot larger over time. This is not difficult to repair, but it should be done at the  earliest opportunity.

When the boat is up on drydock, the keel should be inspected. Look for cracks at the keel-to-hull joint. Cruising boats with full keels generally don’t need much attention, but fin keels do.

Everything attached to the boat on the deck should have a backing plate on the inside. Backing plates, generally made of stainless steel, are like giant washers that spread the load of the attachment to a wider area than just the bolts. Backing plates should be added, if not present, and replaced if they are starting to rust or wear.

You won’t need anchors and anchoring rope unless you actually go anywhere. But no sailboat should be without these, even if you only go day sailing in the bay.

The engine and drivetrain are the most common source of problems on any used sailboat. Usually, the engine doesn’t get run often. The batteries go flat, then the oil goes sour after long disuse. This is a recipe for disaster. The cost of overhauling and reconditioning a diesel inboard is about the same as for an old car engine, although it may be hard to find parts.

“At one point, Surefire’s propeller fell off, and we were not able to recover it. We found this one on board; it looked like a spare, but turned out to be the wrong rotation. We had to have one made. Here, I am measuring the taper on the end of the shaft,” says the author.

The boat’s steering and rudder should always be examined. Steering wheels involve pulleys, quadrants, and other things that can go wrong.

The standing rigging is all the stuff that keeps the mast (or masts) standing. It consists of stays, which have turnbuckles that need to be tensioned properly as well as replaced when they start wearing. This is a job for an expert.

The mast and boom (there may be more than one) are technically part of the standing rigging. You should check the mast step, which is the place where it is joined to the boat. Any cracks or leaks are a cause for concern and will need expert repair. Prepare to spend.

The running rigging is all the ropes that are associated with the sails. Expect to spend close to USD 5,000 on rope and hardware if you want to replace everything, which you should, if it’s over ten years old.

I’ve never bought a boat that has all of its electrical system and wiring working perfectly. The sea really loves to eat anything involving metal. It’s not very expensive to fix; the difficulty lies in finding an expert electrician who understands floating-ground DC and knows what heatshrink is.

The navigational equipment you’ll need on your sailboat includes a good marine VHF radio, which is as cheap as car stereos these days. Most come with a decent compass. If you’re going to do any cruising or serious racing, you should have an installed GPS. Proper sonar is not really necessary, but a simple depth sounder is cheap. For  sailing at night and in fog (yes, there can be fog on the sea in the Philippines), a radar reflector (instead of a radar) is something  that you  should have anyway.

If all of the foregoing sounds too complex and expensive for you, then maybe you’re better off buying a Hobie Cat, less to go wrong and cheaper to fix. Better yet, it’s good to have a friend who owns a sailboat, rather than owning one yourself. But, as you will know if you’ve ever spent time on a decent boat, a bad day sailing is still better than a good day at the office!


Photographs by Rafael A. S. G. Ongpin

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 5 2012.