Taking the emotion out of buying a boat…..

For most of us, buying a yacht will be the second biggest purchase of our lives, next to our home that we live in. But given the gravity of the purchase, I find so many people I know have bought yachts with their hearts rather than their heads, and in the worst case, ended up with a totally inappropriate yacht, or more often, just paying a lot more than they needed to.

I had a small yacht and a trailer sailor in my late teens, but they were “stepping stones” rather than “forever” yachts. At 26 I bought my “forever” yacht, but it only lasted four years before I was looking for something new. But the process of buying and selling yachts is both painful and expensive, as is the process of getting a new yacht up to your standard. I was determined not to make the same mistake again.

My career has been in commercial banking and my decision making tool of choice is MS Excel. I don’t believe there has been a problem I can’t solve with a spreadsheet. While I joke, I think writing the results of the following questions down crystalises your decision making process. It also is vital if there are two of you making the purchase, so you know where each other stand and what they are looking to get out of this transaction. It’s a bit like pre-marriage counseling.

And writing down the plan enabled me to critically evaluate all of the boats that I went to look at. My original plan regarded two cabins as a not-negotiable, as I planned on having guests aboard. When I found a boat that kicked it out of the ballpark for all of my criteria except that it had only one cabin, then I went back to my decision making tool. I decided that, better than expected performance, handling, and pricepoint, was worth trading away what I originally decided was a not negotiable. But the point is I had a decision- making framework to judge each boat.

For my current boat, I established a folder full of sleaves with loose leaf printouts of excel spreadsheets, covering all of the below. Every time I looked at a potential boat I would scribble all of them, then think, and assess. The yacht I bought 13 years ago is the yacht that I will stop sailing when I am in a wheelchair. I got it right.

What are you going to use the boat for?

This sounds ridiculously simplistic, but particularly when it is a couple buying a boat, this seems to rarely be discussed prior to purchase. I have seen people buy a yacht with the intention of offshore racing, yet when they buy the boat, it never even gets used for a SAGS race. So I question, did they buy the best boat for the purpose? Another friend of mine started looking at big, multi chine steel cruising boats to live aboard. She ended up buying a racy Sayer design, which she went on to compete the Solo Tranz Tasman, match racing me for nine and half days, the whole way across the ditch! A fantastic result. I think she will keep that yacht forever too.

At the risk of my corporate background sounding like spin, before buying a boat I think it is a good time to take a hard look at yourself and your relationship. What is my skill level, and how easily can I develop it? Is my partner wiling to endure the long term challenges of living aboard? Are we committed to racing, or is that something I will do on my own and leave my partner behind? How will we manage the deliveries home after an offshore yacht race? Can we afford to keep buying racing sails and paying for the breakages? And if we can afford it, then what are we giving up in lieu? (overseas holidays and early retirement etc).

When it comes to decisions about boats and partners, your first thought may not be the best. One of my female friends was looking at a yacht and was keen on racing. I guided her towards a Lidgard 28; a beautiful fast yacht, but with no double berth and only sitting headroom. Her husband hadn’t sailed, and due to not being able to swim was unlikely to be converted. She instead purchased a significantly roomier Spacesailer 27, and he regularly joins them in the marina at the end of a passage (via car), and has been spending more and more time on the boat bay sailing and at anchor. She made the right decision.

So my decisioning criteria when it comes to use of the boat is based around the following questions. And give some serious thought about whether your next boat is a stepping stone boat, or a forever boat. I consider each in respect to the short, medium and long term, and what will it look like when retired from work?

Racing (occasional or regular):

  • How many days aboard a year will we spend?
  • WAGS and SAGS with no spinnaker
  • Inshore/Club racing with spinnaker
  • Coastal Racing
  • Crossing oceans
  • If crewed racing, where will your crew come from?
  • Who will do the deliveries? How will this be managed?


  • How many days a year will you sleep aboard?
  • Day sailing/picnicking
  • Overnight in sheltered waters
  • Crossing oceans
  • Will we spend time (extended or otherwise) living aboard?
  • Who will be your crew? Do we need crew?

I think the above is fairly straight forward, but I would emphasise the crewing aspect. Many years ago I decided I would sail everywhere single handed, and as such I am not beholden to anyone. I met my partner and that has now converted to short handed. We all know that getting together crew is a challenge, and marinas are full of boats that do not get used due to lack of crew. I think it’s important to have a realistic view of this before buying the boat.

If you are working as an employee, it is important to consider how you will spend your holidays. I only get four weeks a year. Lucas gets five weeks, plus RDO’s due to his shift work. We have an agreement. One year is focused on big trips in the boat, the next we go to Europe to visit his family and only do weekends on the boat.

What’s your style?

The parameters of this heading are endless, but I will try to explain with the words of the great Australian designer, Joe Adams. Joe designed a lot of solid high volume cruising boats. When I was 13 I read an article in a sailing magazine where Joe was interviewed about his new “racing” design, the Adams 13. Ultra lightweight and narrow, he instantly rebutted saying it was a boat he had designed for himself and his wife to go cruising; it was not a racing boat. His idea was lightweight, less use of motor, smaller motor, less diesel, smaller sails, smaller winches, less cost and less drama. The faster you go, the more storms you can outrun.

When I bought my second to last yacht, it was a heavy, ex IOR half tonner of 30 feet. With a distorted waterline, heavy displacement and a pinched in transom, it was lovely upwind but a handful down, and realistically, not that fast or nice to sail.

Our current boat is 40 feet, with the same displacement as the last one. She is a surfboard. She is light on the helm and a pleasure to sail. We can reef deeply and she is a doddle to sail but doesn’t lose any speed. In light airs we don’t have to use the motor, and carry a lot less diesel. However she does slam a lot more to windward, especially under autopilot, but we get there quicker.

If I were in a cyclone, I would still pick my current boat. She surfs free of problems, straight and true. And we have a better chance of not being there in the first place.

At the end of the day its personal preference, but I think you need to come to an educated conclusion on where you sit beforeyou start looking at boats. 

List of equipment and the budget

Once you have decided what you will use the boat for, then you can figure what gear you need to make it happen. If you are racing, this is simple as the races you have chosen to compete in will have a Yachting Australia Category that you will need to comply with. In my folder for my current yacht I had printed out all of the Notices of Races and checked them methodically that the boat I was buying was appropriate for the current requirements.

When it comes to racing or cruising, then storms or crew injuries do not differentiate. When we cruise, I have always made sure that our yacht is equipped to the appropriate racing category for the journey we are undertaking. Is a cruising yacht caught in the same storm as a racing yacht less likely to sink? Of course not. Are the crew less likely to need first aid? No. The Yachting Australia safety categories are comprehensive and not difficult to comply with. As a cruising yachtsman, I can gain leverage from all of the research that has come after yacht racing disasters.

Once decided the Category the boat will be equipped to, you can compile a list of equipment and a budget. When comparing two boats, perhaps of the same design but equipped differently, it will be easy to see how much the upgrades will cost, and which is the best value.

Just refitted, or just needing refit?

The reality is that if you have two yachts of the same model, and one has had a complete refit, and the other hasn’t, they will be listed for the same price. But a full refit is basically the value of the yacht.

After completing your list of equipment, extend it to essential gear like sails, motor and sterngear, standing and running rigging. We recently had a stainless steel rudder stock fail, which was an expensive fix. My insurance company declined the claim, saying that a stainless steel rudder stock has a 20 year lifespan, and ours was 32 years old. Make sure you are comparing the boats in detail, and again update your budget.

What can you afford?

When I bought this boat I made a pact with myself that I would never winge about the cost. A commitment I have generally kept. 

If it’s your first boat, expect the running costs to be double what you first thought. If you are going from 30 feet to 40 feet, expect your running costs to double.

Complete a maintenance budget. Start with the things that are known and fixed, such as marina fees, insurance and registration.  The engine will need servicing. Get a quote from your local yard for antifouling, which will need to be completed at least every 18 months. Standing rigging needs to be replaced every ten years, according to most insurance companies. How long sails last depends on the fabric you choose and how you look after them and use them. 

Then make an allowance for the unknowns. Breakages, electrical and plumbing issues. Don’t be optimistic, and refer back to your list of equipment and your estimated replacement schedule.

Are we going to fit?

One of the biggest mistakes I made in purchasing my penultimate yacht was I didn’t lie in the bunks. The spec sheet said there was a double, I saw the bunk and moved on. It wasn’t until I tried to sleep aboard with my partner, I realized it was just too small. Builders specifications are often optimistic. But this was a deal breaker. We wanted to live aboard but we didn’t have a berth big enough to be comfortable. Sounds simple, but how many people lie in every bunk of the boat before buying? (Don’t forget to take your partner on this journey too).

The decision making process:

My partner and I use the above decision making framework regularly, when we are faced with any major decision in life. We call it a “Board meeting”. It generally involves going out to dinner, a bottle of wine and our Mac laptop with an excel spreadsheet. We usually make the right decisions.

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