Buying an old wooden passagemaker

How many times have you looked at the beautiful lines of a lovely old yacht, but wondered about the work involved in bringing her back? How much will it cost? How long will it take?    

I had the good fortune to become the current guardian of the original Passagemaker motor yacht, designed and built with loving care by the author of the seminal work Voyaging Under Power, Capt. Robert Beebe. This book, the author and especially his boat Passagemaker, revolutionized power voyaging, making it practical for a couple to sail the world’s oceans in comfort and on a limited budget. Passagemaker sailed from Singapore where she was built, to the U.S., cruised both coasts and the Pacific extensively and crossed the Atlantic five times. She even navigated the French canals from the English Channel to the Mediterranean with her gimbaled masts laid on top of the wheelhouse.

Several loving owners later, Passagemaker sat for six years on the hard in Trinidad & Tobago at Powerboats’ excellent facilities. The harsh tropical sun was not kind to her. But beneath the peeling paint and rotting deck was a solid hull and frame and she possessed interior fittings along with an engine, generator, watermaker, radar and other electronics, all in good condition.

But let me back up and describe the steps leading up to her purchase. I had retired and decided to go sailing. So the first step was using the Internet to see what yachts were available and what sort of prices were being asked. Prices are directly related to age and condition. The older the boat and/or the worse her condition, the lower the price. And when it comes to wooden hulls it is truly a buyer’s market. But before you even consider buying any old boat, especially a wooden hulled one, you must decide if you are either well off or a very handy sort and with lots of time, because there will be a plenty of work to do — not just to get her in the water, but on an on-going basis. If you are looking for a “sail it and forget it” boat, look elsewhere. But if you want a fulfilling project, a live-aboard lifestyle in plenty of room and comfort, look at an older boat.

In terms of price, many an owner has taken as little as one dollar rather than see their pride and joy go under the chainsaw, even when the scrap value might have been several thousand dollars. Realistically, expect to pay between $20,000 and $100,000 depending on the boat’s size and condition. And budget at least $10,000 to place her back in the water, even in a basic condition (see the accompanying table showing the 2008 costs in Trinidad to return Passagemaker back to her natural habitat). To this you must add your own “sweat equity.” I invested two months of 24/7 labor before Passagemaker was launched, overhauling equipment and making sure I understood all the various systems on board.

 A good example of equipment that needed attention was the 110-volt Lofrans anchor winch. That was a lesson well learned. The local agent came and said the winch was beyond repair and I should buy a new one. With nothing to lose I stripped the existing one down, freed the armature, cleaned the contactors, and two years later it’s still giving great service. Money saved was at least $15,000 as the winch was the top-of-the-line model.

Having decided you can afford it, how do you determine whether a boat is structurally sound? In the case of a wooden boat you must do a haul out to allow a thorough examination of the hull. Today’s marine surveyors are reluctant to examine wooden boats because so many problems can be lurking just below the surface. But if you go over the whole hull, trying to force an ice pick into each and every timber, you will find any suspicious soft spots which will need to be opened up on the inside to see if just the plank has to be replaced or whether the rot has spread to the interior frame. Don’t worry about the holes the ice pick will make, as you are going to apply antifouling before she goes back in the water anyway.

Another potential source of major problems are the through-hull fittings. Carefully go around the exterior, noting how many there are and their approximate locations, and then find the matching fittings inside. Make sure they open and close easily. They must be easily accessible and there should be a tapered wooden dowel of the matching size and a hefty hammer close at hand. If the through-hulls are showing any signs of corrosion they must be replaced. Old boats have old fittings. It doesn’t matter whether the fitting is made of brass, bronze, stainless or plastic. Old fittings become brittle, losing their strength and integrity. Make sure the seller understands that he or she is totally liable if anything happens to the boat while undergoing sea trials.

Some boats are sold on an “as is, where is” basis and if that is the case start your bidding very low. I’ve heard of people starting their bidding with “$1 and if after six months the boat is everything you say it is, then and only then will I pay you the X percent of the asking price.”

Incidentally while you are crawling around in the bilges, check out the condition of the various frames and other timbers. They must be rock solid. Keep that ice pick handy at all times and don’t be afraid to use it.

Moving up the hull to the topsides, it’s a good idea to go around the interior first looking for any signs of water penetration and then matching that spot with the deck above it. Again the ice pick will soon reveal any rotting deck covering. In the case of Passagemaker I pressure washed the deck to remove old blistered paint and the jet of water went right through in several places as the plywood was only being held together by the paint!

Now when you are faced with a rotting deck, what are your options? I knew I could rip the whole deck off and replace it, but I didn’t even know if Passagemaker would sink or float, whether the engine would run, or whether the gearbox had seized up or not. The solution was provided by my painting contractor, Allen Dowden, owner of Yacht Maintenance Services in Chaguaramas, Trinidad. He offered to remove all loose and flaking paint on the boat, to patch rotted decking with fiberglass and to strip and antifoul the hull for less than U.S. $3,000, including materials. This was the perfect compromise. I gave Dowden the go-ahead and he did an excellent job. I knew that if Passagemaker lived up to her owner’s assurances I could easily replace bad deck panels in my own time as and when I could afford to do the work.

The main engine must be run and the gearbox and prop checked for nasty noises, vibration, oil leaks and the like. While this can be done up on the hard it’s best if you test everything when she is in the water. Certainly do not agree on any price until the boat has been launched and tested at sea. Ask for the service records to gain some idea of the boat’s history. Well-maintained diesel engines will run for years and years. Generators and electronics should all be tested. If you don’t know how, find someone who does. These are not cheap items and replacing them can easily exceed the initial cost of the boat.

And last, but not least, check the wiring. Old boats tend to have accumulated many bits of equipment as each owner added his own touches such as deck washdown pumps, mast lighting, electronics and electrical outlets of various voltages. Many of them have become obsolete or unwanted with the passage of years and have been removed, but the cabling is nearly always left in place, “just in case.” Passagemaker was no exception and I am still, three years later, removing unwanted cables. The older the cable, the greater the fire risk as the insulation becomes brittle with age. Plus, they make it devilishly hard to trace a fault. There are three banks of batteries on Passagemaker and in each case the battery stand had rotted away from battery acid caused by overfilling. I made sure when I built new stands they were lined with fiberglass and had at least a two-inch lip all the way around.

Would I buy Passagemaker now, knowing all the work that had to be done? In a flash. There is really something wonderful about working on restoring a boat with a long history. I often pause in the middle of a job to imagine the men who built her nearly 50 years ago in the John Thornycroft shipyard in Singapore. Their pride still shows in the workmanship that is so evident throughout her spacious interior.

Peter Quentrall-Thomas was trained as a civil engineer and has lived in Trinidad & Tobago since 1976. He has served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and was elected to the central executive of the ruling political party. This article is an expanded version of a text insert that is to be published in Voyaging Under Power, 4th Edition, by Robert Beebe and Denis Umstot in 2012. Used with permission.

Approximate cost to get Passagemaker back in the water

All externals including antifouling hull, gloss to top sides, non-skid deck paint…$3,160


Remove diesel injector pump and service …$200
Oil change, filters, etc. …$50

Replace raw water pump…$350
Oil change, filters, etc. …$50

Four large new fenders – original was stolen …$280

Outboard engine
New 5-hp Tohatsu 2-stroke outboard – original also was

Life raft

New sets of flares for boat and for grab bag…$200

Fire extinguishers
Service 6 and new large one for engine room…$250

New three-burner gas stove as original was badly rusted…$1,270

Six HD 12-volt batteries…$1,200
New Xantrex battery charger…$552

Yard fees
Storage, electricity, travel lift…$560


(guessed at 20%)…$1,994

Grand total

to get back in the water…$11,966

1: Used original 6-year-old diesel mixed with new diesel. No problem.
2: Much work was done by author such as building new battery stands and lining the battery tray with fiberglass.
3: Subsequently used sails for $1,000 had to be bought as old ones were perished.

By Ocean Navigator