Pocket yachts, post 3.
The low budget pocket yacht.
In my first two posts of this series i based my story on two boats that i actually bought, did some degree of refit on them and went to sea in them , in real-time the first one was the Frances 26 that owned while i was working full time and the second one was the very old Deben 4 tonner which i’d intended as a major restoration and conversion project. Both of those episodes also have several side stories which go along with them and in the posts about them i left a lot of detail unsaid – for example that the Frances 26 was the most expensive thing that iv’e ever owned at that point in my life and really that it was a luxury that i could ill afford and will never be able to repeat.
In a way the Frances 26 project only happened in the way that it did because i was in a relatively well paying job and that i was prepared, committed even, to an expensive refit ; not exactly a no expense spared approach but i started out with an expensive ‘niche’ boat and then added or replaced anything that i felt that the project really needed. During the two long refits that i did on the Frances 26 she got all new rigging and sails, ultimately a new (reconditioned) engine and an expensive Windpilot self steering gear. What it represented to me was my one attempt to make a very well equipped ‘quality’ pocket offshore yacht and to hell with the budget…..within the constraints of the size of boat that i’d chosen.
One of my own self criticisms of the boat and in fact the whole project was that i bought the boat simply because i really wanted that type of boat and was at the time blind to choice – i could for example have got a lot more boat for my money or simply spent a lot less time and money and then gone sailing a lot sooner. With that as background i want to start this post by returning to the Brittany voyage i made with the Frances 26 and the brief meeting i had with another boat one day that ultimately changed my thinking about boats in terms of cost/value and their presence in our lives as luxury objects.
In the previous post i wrote about my first time solo offshore aboard the Frances ; my first solo channel crossing wasn’t the whole story as in fact i’d done a few days cruising in the boat along the south west coast before i left from Falmouth – in fact i was late leaving Falmouth that day because i was waiting for a sail to be repaired……but that’s another story. In this story i’d left the Hamoaze (Plymouth) and cruised west via Fowey and Falmouth over a few days and during those short sails and overnight anchorages i’d seen the same few boats also out sailing again and again : one of those boats is a home made steel gaffer of around 32 feet which now seems to live as a permanent liveaboard cum shanty boat locally ……and the other was a small blue sloop of about 23 feet or so but of a type that i never did recognize – i thought for a while that it might have once been a small quarter-ton IOR hull, maybe even a one-off.
What i do remember about that boat was that it was a dark blue ‘chalky’ looking GRP hull, had a comically large windvane system on it’s stern which looked functional but home made, nothing wrong with that, a large inflatable as tender and i think i clocked it’s owner as being an older guy. Anyway, i saw that boat at anchor pretty well everywhere i went during my few days getting ready for my channel crossing and then lo and behold there it was again several days after i made that cross channel passage in L.Aber-Wrach and then again when i put into the Aulne river in the south eastern corner of the Rade de Brest.
Now, i’m not very sociable but in this case i’d been on my own and mostly at sea or alone at anchor for a couple of weeks and that evening as i motored around the first deep bends of the Aulne – past the derelict warships and the tide mill – the little blue sloop was right there and her owner was in the cockpit and had obviously seen me so it seemed positively antisocial just to motor on past. Instead i aimed for a close but slow pass under engine, we both said hello and that we had both noticed each others boat in Fowey and Falmouth – we’d crossed the channel within 12 hours of each other and broadly had the same kind of plan except that he was going to head upriver first and lay alongside in Chateaulin/Port Launay for a few days and maybe even over-winter there at the town quay.
We talked for a while as the ebb started to kick in a bit harder and after a while i noticed a plume of steam coming from his companionway…..his evening meal on the boil…..so i sheered off and motored ahead to find my own anchoring spot and make my own dinner. During our brief time talking i got the impression that he’d had to leave home and an unhappy relationship and was basically getting by on a small work pension and doing so by keeping everything about his boat and his life as simple as possible, not using marinas but always anchoring off somewhere or ‘borrowing’ an unoccupied mooring. As he said himself , that nobody notices or cares about a small scruffy boat especially if it’s owner is a bit on the scruffy side too and that it’s easy to hide a small boat away at the head of a river where a lazy harbormaster can’t be bothered to go.
Sadly none of my pictures of that boat or the home built steel gaffer have survived a computer wipe out many years ago and that was the last time i saw the little blue sloop ; in the end i didn’t go upriver that time but i wished him all the best in his simple existence out on the margins and getting by with a small and very basic boat on a small budget. The legacy to me of that brief meeting and some earlier similar experiences set me to thinking about why i’d chosen a relatively much more expensive boat to achieve the same goals : after that cruise and return home to start working on our new home i sold the Frances as i needed the capital but it started me off on a whole series of mental and practical exercises to find a low budget pocket yacht and how to minimise, reduce and simplify my sailing life in terms of gear and boat while getting the most fun possible out of my time at sea.
The budget boat.
In the previous post i said that the Frances 26 represented the first major change in my thinking about boats ; away from IOR boats which really represented most of what i thought i knew about boats and towards long keeled and moderate displacement cruising boats. Selling the expensive Frances 26 and moving on was a wrench at first because i’d put so much time and effort into it let alone the costs involved but it quickly became very liberating mentally and along similar lines to the other aspects of my life in the outdoors – without going too far sideways here i started to think of boats, sailing and the sea with a more ‘bushcraft’ mindset, in brief – more knowledge and basic skill and less reliance on expensive ‘stuff’.
I’ll try and illustrate that idea with a short set of idea/stories and where they took me so……
First : the thousand pound (£) Caribbean cruiser.
I heard from a friend of a friend that a mutual sailing acquaintance of ours was cruising in the Caribbean with a boat that he’d put on the water and crossed the Atlantic with for a thousand pounds (GBP) , knowing the guy i thought that he would be one of the few people able to do that : for one he’s deeply embedded in the ‘scene’ of the south coast, is sociable and knows everyone so he would know of any boats going cheap – and then he’s got a shed full of gear and after that he’s got the basic skills and nous to pull it off. During my break from sailing , while i was working on the cottage and selling the Frances i played around with that idea and i wondered if i could also put a viable cruising boat on the water for the same budget and then played around with looking to see what i could find for that or a ‘double’ budget : the reason for that being that i was by then following the excellent Dylan Winter’s Youtube channel in which he’d set out to sail around the UK in an admittedly ‘crap boat’ which he bought for £2500…..the famous ‘Slug‘ (it’s not actually called that i have to add).
The Slug……and Mr’s Dylan i believe.
One of several posts i wrote at the time all based around the idea of minimal budget boats.
Where i got to with that idea is the boat in the above picture – an Achilles 24 that was on the market for around £1250 if i remember it correctly and i think might be the boat that the even excellent-er Roger Taylor bought and converted into his second Arctic exploration yacht…..his first one being a 21 foot Corribee which he named MingMing.
Roger Taylor and MingMing.
In my case it was largely Dylan’s voyage and his video’s that inspired me to have a go at something similar because for me that would be a completely different kind of sailing that i’d ever done before – cruising in and out of all the small harbors, ports, estuaries and rivers around the English coastline , and doing it all in the smallest and most basic boat possible. What happened with that is that i put the project on the back-burner for a couple of years but kept an eye out for suitable boats – something that would go coastal but would be very happy to dry out on the beach or miles up and Essex creek – in the end i chose the little Hunter Liberty at 22 feet and a slightly higher budget than i intended – but then again that we literally sailed away on the day we picked it up.
In this series of posts iv’e tried to talk about Pocket yachts from the perspective of the ones that iv’e owned and sailed myself so maybe i should add a few comments about the Liberty before going broad with the discussion about finding and running a budget boat today – off all of my boats so far which includes the ones iv’e owned and the much bigger boats that iv’e worked and crewed on i think i had most enjoyment and sheer ‘bang for buck’ with the 22 foot centerboard Liberty. If you’re wondering what i considered as my budget – i had some snarky comments about my pocket classic and it being a case of ‘deep pockets’……then it was £5000 although i nearly put an offer in on a boat at half that but which would have needed as much again spending on it ; once again, with the Liberty, i didn’t want to start on an endless project, simply wanted to go sailing so as i said above – i went out in a yard launch and collected her off her winter mooring and maybe as much as an hour later we were motoring down Portsmouth harbor and across the Solent to spend our first night aboard her.
After i sold the Frances 26 but before the time i got a part time job to pay for the next one i kept an interest by watching out for suitable boats and roughly costing up each one based on asking price and then what a first look estimate of what they would need to get back on the water : the dark blue Achilles 24 as an example i found would have really needed a new mainsail and jib, all new rigging, several weeks work and the expense of having her towed to a suitable yard. I found that as a general rule the lower the base asking price of the boat then the more gear needed replacing and/or the more ‘rescue’ they needed and each one that i looked at really worked out at close to the same cost on the water just plus or minus more work.
Your budget…..money and time.
For the main point of this post i want to return to the idea of your overall budget having two main sides ; obviously the first is the actual cost of buying the boat but the second might be even more ‘costly’ in that also we need to think about and ‘cost’ the time involved in getting the boat sorted enough to go to sea with. In my experience here there’s almost a simple and direct inverse relationship between the base cost of the boat and the amount of time it will take to sort it out : also, usually, the lower the base cost the more expense will be involved in replacing or adding essential equipment – one feature of these ‘end of the line’ boats being that any valuable kit may have already been removed (or stolen) for hard cash. Of several boats in this category that i saw myself one , which was an older race boat, had all of it’s nice blocks removed, ditto it’s best cordage all removed and in one case replaced with real nasty tat.
Money/budget. Remember that the base cost of the boat you buy is only the start as on day one you may also have to include the cost of insurance, that of moving the boat and maybe immediately starting to pay for a mooring or other harbor fees. Yes, we all know that boats can be a bottomless pit into which we just pour money but they can also be a trap where we pour in more time and effort and in a way here’s the punchline……whereas we might be able to deal with the financial strain of boat ownership by doing what i did – essentially working extra shifts, that also reduced the amount of time i had for doing work ; however, on the other side of the time and money equation we only have and can only have a finite amount of it.
In a way, time is money but it’s also life : for some, beavering away in the back row of a down at heel boatyard up the end of a muddy creek somewhere is just something to get through – just part of the pain and ‘fun’ of boat ownership. My time and money budget also came to include a much more realistic look at how much of both i would need to spend and that came with the much harder question of ‘is it worth it’ ?……with the small and cheap classic boat that i bought it wasn’t so much the cost of materials but the amount of time it would have taken to do the work…..and then the cost involved of renting dry shed space to do that work. To be honest i would have much rather been sailing even with a less ideal boat which, in the end, is exactly what i did.
Up until last year when i bought a set of plans and a pile of plywood i kept about the same amount of funds aside in case i found something that i really couldn’t resist as my next boat…..i came close twice : once with a nicer triple keeled Achilles 24 and once with a little ‘Poacher’ cat-ketch. Of those two boats the former one would have caused the same problem that i was trying to escape , namely having to keep it on an expensive mooring but the Poacher we might have just about been able to keep at home. By then though i had much more clearly defined my budget as not including yard fees and mooring fees and as it happened I, like everyone else , suddenly had loads of time on my hands and no way of getting out on the water with my then boat behind a locked gate.
For me as everyone else the last two years have been strange ones, i missed an entire year when i seem to have done very little and i decided to use the ongoing (created) crisis by using all of my time at home to simply start building a boat and i’m glad to say that my first year of building has been a hugely engaging project in it’s own right. The eventual financial cost of what i’m now building will be about twice as much as my set-aside budget but it doesn’t matter so much because i’m not paying storage fees for something that i own but can’t access and with my project a surprisingly small material cost spread out over time allows me the full mental engagement that i so desperately missed in the first year of covid.
Final thoughts today…..got a boat to build !
In 2019 i took the little Liberty across the channel for the second time but this time i’d actually retired and i intended to spend all the summer in Brittany, maybe even over-winter in somewhere like Port Launay. I had probably the best 110 days iv’e ever spent on a boat and that includes my time on maxi yachts in the Caribbean – all on my little 22 foot budget boat and anyway i made a few observations there about the small boat sailing scene and even managed a few conversations with other sailors.
One older sailor that i spent some time with told me a lot about the actual social situation in France, that many people he knew were working class and having to run two jobs just to get by and pay their high taxes and increasing food and fuel costs ; one thing he said about that was that several sailors that he’d known had simply dropped out of sailing and boat ownership as their cost of living went up and up. As iv’e said myself – a sailing boat is a luxury item and would even be near top of my list of things that would have to go if was running into any financial difficulty ; as it was i’d already made the decision that i could either run a car or i could run a small boat……but not do both at the same time.
Three of my observations in Brittany were that first, there were very few small sailing boats in the marinas or on moorings, second….that everywhere i went in rivers and creeks there were always small boats that looked semi-abandoned pulled up on rough beaches and several of them obviously had been just left to rot. My last observation was that the nature of small boat ownership in Brittany seems to have changed towards small sporty working/fishing boats , often to the extent that they represented half of what was in a marina…..it was only those boats that i regularly saw out on the water during my travels that year. Later, when i sailed home i found that there is an organisation in France just retrieving and destroying those old abandoned sailing yachts and if iv’e got this right it’s not just a few but getting into the hundreds.
I’m going to sign off on this post because the place my current thinking takes me suggests that the age of mass leisure boat ownership and leisure sailing is already well past – it probably peaked even before i came into sailing in the 1970’s and my observation is that it’s declining quickly and for some reasons that are now much more obvious. Nearly all of the secondhand budget boats that i could conceivably rescued , refitted and sailed were built in the late 70’s and early 80’s…..that means that most of them are now 40-50 years old and most of them were built cheaply in the first place, to be honest, most of the ones iv’e seen recently are knackered and well past their useful working life. It’s purely my own opinion that the party is over…..in terms of low end leisure sailing as i understand it : for sure there are more superyachts, J Class yachts and super-maxi yachts than there has ever been but all that represents is the huge disparity now between high end wealth and sailing plebs like me.