Used Boat Buying: Looking at the Boat

Is bird poop a good sign on a J/35 sailboat that's for sale? Author/surveyor Paul Grimes says "yes..." with a few caveats.

30th September 2010.
By Paul Grimes

There was actually more than one reason why I drove to Marion last March to look at the J/35 we would eventually buy. Certainly I wanted to see the boat and evaluate its condition, but I also wanted to just stand on the deck and see how I felt about the idea of going back to a J/35. Even with all the reasons why a J/35 is a great value, sometimes that girl you should like just isn’t the one you’re crazy about – and you have to be a little crazy to buy a boat.

What’s that white stuff? Only a fuzzy-logical optimist could see a deck covered with bird poop as an asset.

I came heavily armed with my surveying checklist and equipment – the most important of which was my moisture meter. The key question for a boat with a balsa-cored hull and deck is whether water has leaked into the core. I’ll be the first to say that just about anything on a boat can be fixed, but if the core was soaking wet, I wasn’t going to be the one to do it.

I met, Ed, the broker, at the storage yard, and found the boat stored inside a metal shed, just inches from its neighbors. The owners had delivered the sails to the boat, but there were no batteries onboard – so no lights inside. The boats were packed so closely that not much light made it to the keel either. Fortunately, we had flashlights, but our time inside the boat felt like a scene from CSI.

Up on the Flight Deck . . .
There was plenty of light up on deck and it was instantly clear that the local birds had spent more time on the boat last summer than anyone else. The deck might have been swept off recently, but the white residue of bird poop was everywhere.

“It . . . doesn’t show well,” Ed said, and I agreed under my breath.

Most likely, this also meant that the boat had seen little or no use last summer (something that would have more of an effect on the boat than I realized).

Others might have walked away right then, but, ever the optimist, (or sucker) I reasoned that this might be an opportunity. Cosmetic issues are pretty easy to fix, and the deck would look fine after an hour with a hose. If the bird poop turned off other prospective buyers, maybe that could be a good thing. (Thank goodness for fuzzy logic!)

Tracking the Invisible
After a quick look around, I started running the moisture meter over the hull. It was very dry, except for a small area aft, where it was likely that a little standing water was left inside. The deck was more typical of a J/35 – elevated moisture on the cabin top and around the chainplates – and even a spot on the starboard side that sounded dull when I tapped it.

Elevated moisture spots on deck

Moisture meters and their results are a subject for another article, but from my experience, you never get a false negative from a moisture meter (dry is dry); it’s the positive readings that need interpretation. The meters measure conductivity, and are great at reading “wet” around screws from head liners or battery boxes, as well as rust stains, or standing water inside the hull. In this case, the wet areas were away from any of these things (and had registered so wet) that I was confident there was real water intrusion.

Tapping with a mallet is just as important, and the area that sounded dull had a definite problem. While the other areas would need to be opened and fixed at some point, the dull area probably had mushy core and would need help very soon – before freeze/thaw cycles expanded the water in the core to delaminate the deck over a larger area.

The Yanmar showed no telltale signs of problems.

Ahh, the Yanmar . . .
A clear sign of aging is when you’re happy to see an inboard engine in a sailboat. But high on our “didn’t know how good we had it” list was the contrast between the ease of an inboard diesel engine on the J/35 we sold, and the gyrations needed to deploy the outboard on the Hobie 33 we bought after that. Obviously, the inboard engine helps when the wind dies, but it’s also instantly available for going head to wind to drop the main, anchoring in tight spots, getting on and off the mooring when the current and the wind don’t agree, and charging the hungry batteries so you actually feel free to use the onboard electrical systems – all without having to deal with an outboard that you may, or may not, want to leave hanging off the stern.

This one was a Yanmar (even better) with a little rust here and there, but clearly winterized by the yard, and showing no telltale signs of problems. Made my “halfway to 92” body tingle all over . . .

Signs of Wear
The boat showed signs of age and some hard racing in the past – gel coat crazing around cracked stanchion bases, and signs of hardware being moved around on the deck and the mast. The mast also had a splice just below the gooseneck – a sign of the length of extrusion available at the time, or a repair from an ugly moment? The wood on deck had been given almost too much love – sanded and coated so many times that the handrails were looking pretty small, and one had a nice split in it. The sails – well, they were toast for racing, but they could still be used to get the boat going.

The large gap between rudder and hull could be easily fixed (or so I thought)..

Underwater
The “recent epoxy bottom and paint” job was a rolled-on effort, neatly done but pretty rough.

The keel had definitely been faired in a prior lifetime, but it had chipping and growth on the bottom – either from minor grounding or being stored on blocks. It also had some twist – common, but something people rarely notice. If you stood behind the keel, you could see that the top of the keel was aligned fore & aft, but the bottom was aiming a degree to two to starboard. Might be fast off the line on starboard tack…

There was also a big gap between the rudder and the hull – easily fixed by loosening the bearing and sliding the rudder up (or so I thought).

A splice in the mast just below the gooseneck – repair from an ugly moment?

Warm and Fuzzy??
I called my wife, Kim, on the way home. “Not sure I got the warm and fuzzy from this one,” I told her. The ad had presented the boat very well without being dishonest in any way, but the boat needed some serious TLC.

Over the next two months, I would take a look at a Beneteau Figaro, and an Express 37, all the while still seeing the ad for this boat on Boats.com. It was late May before I called Ed again to see if it was still available.

Next Up: The negotiations, and the agreement we reached

Editor’s Note: This article is part 4 of an ongoing series about buying a used sailboat.

Read part 1, To Buy a Boat or Not to Buy a Boat

Read part 2, Used Boat Ads

Read part 3, How to Talk with the Broker

Paul Grimes is an engineer and marine surveyor living in Portsmouth, RI. Read his detailed reviews of the J/35 and Hobie 33.


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