A boat in search of me

Beringer at the helm looking for a boat.

I thought I’d never say this, but I miss being a boat owner. For 20 years I had sailed my faithful Catalina 34 everywhere and all around — on the Florida coast, throughout Chesapeake Bay and across the Gulf Stream into the turquoise archipelago of the Bahamas. But with 3,500 hours on the engine she was showing her age, and on a cruise up the East Coast I was averaging a major repair every 100 miles. In a fit of frustration I made the hasty decision to hang a sign on her and let someone else continue with the projects. 

I know, it was supposed to be one of the two greatest days of my life but it sure didn’t feel that way. After the good feeling of cashing the check wore off it was more like the day my daughter went off to college. Now what do I do?

Fortunately I’m in a sailing club and there is ample opportunity to crew on other people’s boats. Some would call this the ideal arrangement, like being a grandparent. I show up at the dock, go racing or cruising with an owner, we have a great time then I shut off the engine and hand them the key. See you next week!

But even with plenty of time on the water there’s something missing. Part of sailing’s great appeal for me is being the person responsible for (hopefully) making good decisions: interpreting the tidal predictions and weather forecasts, calculating an ETA to the next waypoint, choosing where to drop anchor in an unnamed creek. I can’t do that when I’m a guest. No it’s clear, I need to be a boat owner again.

For more than a year now I’ve been on the hunt, searching mostly online throughout the continental U.S. I’ve set the parameters, narrowing it down to just the three or four manufacturers that have the suitable boat for me and the sailing I will do in the Pacific Northwest. My “must have” list is brief and reasonable: it must be a well manufactured, single-hand vessel no more than a decade old. Bonus points for a dinghy, solar panels and low engine hours. That’s it.

At least my timing is good. Used boat inventories have improved dramatically since January 2022 when 96% of used boat dealers said their inventory was too low, according to a monthly survey by Baird Research.

If you’ve never purchased a used boat you should know it’s not like buying a car or a computer. Two boats built the same year by the same manufacturer can be as different as toast and tea. Older boats have likely been “customized” by each of their respective owners and the professional technicians they’ve hired. In many cases repairs or upgrades were completed by a half-dozen different techs, all with varying degrees of skill, who may not have done the work to ABYC standards. The older the boat, the more likely that you’ll be confronted with “electrician’s spaghetti.”

But here’s the rub: when I first bought the Catalina in 1998 I knew little about boats. I stumbled across her on a canal in Punta Gorda; it looked good, the price was right, so I grabbed it. Twenty-five years down the road I have the benefit of experience; thousands of miles on myriad boats. There are so many out there that would do the job for me, how can I pick just one?

You’d think that going to the boat shows would be a good way to shop but I have found that to be mostly untrue. The builders bring only the biggest, flashiest and most expensive models that are beyond the reach of guys like me. And a new boat is like the empty canvas of the painter. It would take much time to get her ready for my long-distance cruise. No, I prefer a boat that’s been sailed awhile by someone living aboard. That way I would take possession of something that would require far less outfitting, and I could get underway quickly.

And thinking creatively has helped. I’ve gotten some promising leads from social media boat owner groups where I posted an “I’m in search of a boat like yours” comment.

But I now think I’ve been going about this search all wrong. To a certain extent I have to allow the boat to find me. In the first Harry Potter movie (if you’re a parent I know you’ve seen it) young Harry goes to a specialty store searching for a wand. He is told that, “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter.” I know it’s going to happen, one fine day. That perfect boat is going to jump out of the computer and choose me.  ν

Robert Beringer is a marine journalist/photographer and the author of Water Power! For a free sample go to: www.smashwords.com/books/view/542578.