Category Archives: boat buying

Oops, We Bought a Project Boat!

It’s winter, and for us that means it’s project season. Nearing 3 years of too many projects to count (but also a lot of sailing), I’ve been asking myself – did we actually end up with a project boat? While shopping for a boat, the one thing I was sure of was we didn’t want a project boat!

I had heard of people buying project boats and spending years working on them without sailing. I have a lot of admiration for people who do that, but for us sailing and cruising was always the number 1 goal. If a project boat meant we couldn’t cruise, we’d be better off continuing to charter and sail in clubs.

I’ve written before that eventually I realized all boats are project boats (“What Exactly is a Project Boat Anyway?“). And even though living aboard has made it easier to work on projects, the project list hasn’t gotten any shorter. For every project finished, we discover one or two new ones.

[Note: I’ve added a Projects page to the site, listing most of the major and minor projects completed]

Haul-out in June 2015

Another reason I didn’t want a project boat was I understood that boats are expensive but not in the initial purchase cost – an old boat is only as much as two new cars, which many middle-class families have (and if you told them two cars are a luxury rather than a necessity, they would probably disagree). The real budget killer is in the carrying costs – yearly moorage and maintenance.

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What Exactly is a Project Boat Anyway?

“Project boat” is a term boaters use to mean a boat that is a mess – old, neglected, in need of major deferred maintenance and repairs. When I first learned this term I thought it meant a boat that had some major damage like a hull puncture or grounding, or perhaps sat in a boatyard for a few years and was no longer guaranteed seaworthy. When shopping for boats, I knew I definitely didn’t want a project boat.

Later I learned “project boat” means a different thing to everyone. All boats are project boats in a sense – in that there are always projects to do.

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To me what “project boat” means is a boat that has so many projects that they interfere with actually using the boat (for sailing or cruising). It could be big projects that require the boat to be hauled out in the boat yard for a long time, or just many small projects that end up consuming all your time or making you not comfortable using the boat yet.

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Stuck in Customs

Friday we went up to Point Roberts for the start of Project Liberate our Boat from Canada that I mentioned previously. What follows is the story of how our boat got detained (in “jail”) by U.S. customs for 18 hours.

It was our own real-life version of The Terminal, the movie where Tom Hanks gets trapped by bureaucracy in JFK Airport.

The Drive Up to Point Roberts

Our friends Griffin and Jessie were nice enough to give Natalie, myself, and Jeremy (who came to help crew) a ride up on their way to Whistler. On the drive up the first premonitions of trouble came as the delivery skipper texted me saying he had arrived but customs was saying they needed three forms and wouldn’t come down to the customs dock to meet him (as mentioned, the broker and Anacortes Documentation Services had said the hired delivery to the U.S. was necessary to avoid paying both Canadian and WA sales tax).

The customs officer called me and sounded very irate. She said they couldn’t release the boat without a customs broker completing the forms. She was also incensed that the boat had arrived without 2 days advance notice. It was 3pm on a Friday by then, so the chances of reaching a customs broker on short notice were low, but I called the one they recommended and left a message (they were in a meeting).

Our position on the customs dock for the night and next morning

Our position on the customs dock for the night and next morning

Why I Thought We Were Following Proper Procedure

At this point I should explain how many people had given me outright wrong information. Multiple people had told me that we should hire a skipper to bring it out of Canada, to avoid being double-taxed, and then take delivery in Point Roberts and would not need a customs broker to go through Point Roberts.

  • Broker at Fraser Yacht Sales: Said purchasing a Canadian boat from the U.S. would be pretty straightforward, and we’d just need to hire a delivery skipper to bring it to the U.S.
  • Sonya at Anacortes Documentation Services (closing company): Said you didn’t need a customs broker to go through Point Roberts, but would at any other port. (this was a big reason to use Point Roberts, since customs brokers are expensive).
  • U.S. Customs officer at Point Roberts (via phone a week prior, unfortunately I didn’t write down his name): I told him we were having a delivery skipper bring the boat from Canada to Point Roberts and then were bringing it back to Seattle, and asked what we’d need. He said proof of ownership, $19 for the user decal fee, and filling out some forms which they’d have on hand in the customs office.
  • Delivery skipper: Didn’t stipulate any customs requirements, but he seemed to think the plan I emailed over would be no problem. He was a very nice guy, but he only does this once a year, and his information was outdated – customs might have waved us on through a few years ago, but has been cracking down with new regulations in the last year.

Ultimately I’m responsible for knowing what to do, but others were also responsible for giving me the wrong facts. People who work in the marine industry should know the rules – it’s their job to know this. Especially the U.S. customs officer who misinformed me – even the Customs office can’t get their story straight!

Trying to Appease Customs

On the drive up we stopped at an Office Max and I printed out the 3 forms Customs was talking about from the Internet. They looked pretty silly (a couple of them wanted a manifest of all your cargo, gross tonnage, and how many tankers you had onboard – these were forms intended for bulk cargo carriers!).

At Point Roberts I rushed to call customs because they closed at 5pm and it was 4:30. We had plans to leave early at 7am tomorrow, so we had to get checked out of customs before they closed. The customs officer, someone named Riggie, said we must get a customs broker before they would release us.

So next we drove the mile to the US-CAN border with the transfer skipper to speak to them in person. Our friends on their way to Whistler were being super patient taking time out from their long drive up. At Customs, Officer Riggie was there, along with her manager (who was nicer, but still taking her side), and she had also called a higher level customs supervisor in Bellingham.

Basically, we were royally screwed. She wasn’t going to let us leave without formal entry by a customs broker, and the chances of getting one on short notice on the weekend, with Monday a U.S. holiday, were low. We wouldn’t be allowed to fill the forms out ourselves, and even though I had proof of ownership, WA registration and no taxes were due on it, she wouldn’t let us operate it. If we took the boat and left for Friday Harbor customs in the morning, technically we would be breaking the law.

I asked could we have the transfer skipper take the boat out back to the Canadian border (couldn’t we “change our minds” about coming to the U.S.?) and then have me sail the boat back to Point Roberts? Since the reason we weren’t being allowed to self-import (without a customs broker) was that a foreign (Canadian) hired skipper brought the boat into the U.S., if I brought it in I would have been allowed to self-import with just a form and some documents. She got rather flustered when I suggested this idea.

I think what she was trying to say is that as soon the foreign skipper brought it into the U.S. without 48 hours advanced notice or properly filed customs paperwork, they decided to hold it. It’s like the boat was in jail, except that customs doesn’t have a jail big enough to fit a boat, so they detain it by their word only.

We were discovering Customs agents have superpowers without normal legal due process. Normally in the U.S. legal system you can self-represent yourself without being required to hire a third-party; at customs, that’s not the case apparently.

Saturday was Valentine's Day, so while we were still detained by Customs, I decorated the boat with hearts.

Saturday was Valentine’s Day, so while we were still detained by Customs, I decorated the boat with hearts.

Maybe the hearts would give Customs sympathy to our plight and release us.

Maybe the hearts would give Customs sympathy to our plight and release us.

Trying to Find a Customs Broker

Cell phones don’t work in Point Roberts, except if you walk to just the right section of the land, and Wifi required me to walk around hunting for a signal. So it was doubly hard to contact customs brokers on a Friday night before a holiday weekend. McClary, Swift & Co ignored us and never returned our messages. I can’t say I’m surprised because most don’t want to do last-minute work for a measly yacht – customs brokers spend most of their time importing multi-million dollar container ships and such. Two others we called we just got voicemail. I emailed two more around 10pm after a friendly marina guy working late told me the name of the hidden WiFi access point.

If we weren’t able to get an emergency customs broker clearance Saturday morning, we would miss our departure window for Saturday and have to stay another night on the customs dock. If we weren’t able to get one Sunday either, we would probably have to abandon the whole trip – move the boat to the marina for a week (at $40/night), find a ride back to the U.S., and then next weekend hope the weather was good and we could find a one-way ride back across two borders again.

Luckily, Jones & Jones customs brokers saved us. Michael Jones was checking email late and replied at 1am from Phoenix with info on what we were being put through (formal entry). We would need to pay for a surety bond for the vessel, plus his normal customs broker fee, an extra surcharge for weekend/after-hours work, and a 5% handling fee. Given Customs was holding us indefinitely I seemed to have no choice.

Michael had a doctor’s appointment at 10am, so we rushed to get all the paperwork done Saturday morning and faxed over to the marina office. Then I had to sign and return it, they’d enter us into the Customs electronic records, and fax over six forms to them, and Customs would send an officer down to release us.

Freed at Last!

At about 11am it was finally all done, and a nice elderly Customs officer drove down to release us from jail. He said he himself had not known about this policy we were being run through. This makes the second Customs officer who didn’t know their own rules. However he was friendly and got the final paperwork done for us, and we were able to cast off dock and head south to the San Juans. We had just enough time left to get safely to Friday Harbor before dark. More on that in the next post.

Project Liberate our Boat from Canada

The U.S. and Canada have kind of a friendly rivalry. They’re good at healthcare and hockey, we’re good at BBQ and football. This weekend we’re hoping to rescue our boat back from Canada and return it to its original U.S. roots (it was built in Rhode Island, and had one or two previous owners in Washington).

I’ll talk a bit about the logistics of buying a boat from Canada when you live in the U.S. First, obviously there’s the exchange rate to think about. Historically USD – CAD has favored Canada for the last 5 years or so, but in the 1 1/2 months since I put the offer in on the boat, the US dollar has had a terrific run to strength. Here’s what 1 USD will get you in CAD since December:

USDtoCADgraph

The broker used a U.S. title / closing company to handle the closing and currency exchange. They do the title paperwork, pass the money through an escrow account, and handle your Washington registration and sales tax. Their fee was $400. I started researching options for a good exchange rate through my banks or using an online exchange transfer like TransferWise, but it turns out the titling company was able to get near par (mid-market) rates.

To bring a boat back to the U.S., you need to bring it through customs at a U.S. port. The documentation company told me you basically have to do it through Point Roberts or else at the other ports (Anacortes, Friday Harbor, etc) you’d need to hire a customs broker.

I learned I couldn’t take delivery of the boat in Canada, because doing that would risk Canadian revenue authority perhaps thinking I owe them Canadian sales tax (GST/HST at close to 13%). Then I’d be paying double sales tax! (9.5% Washington and 10+% Canadian). This was a surprise to me since I hadn’t recalled the broker saying this when we had initially toured the boat. It meant I needed to have a delivery skipper bring it to Point Roberts.

This is kind of disconcerting to me since I’m a do-it-yourself kind of person. The idea of having someone else drive the boat even just a short trip is a little unnerving. It’s kind of like handing your manual transmission car over to a valet driver who might mess up your transmission if he doesn’t know how to drive stick well. But the skipper sounds good and it’s a short run (32 miles) so I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Point Roberts is a strange little corner of Canada that is U.S. territory even though it’s not accessible by land without leaving the U.S. first. We’ll have the pleasure of driving through border security twice in one hour.

I called Point Roberts and they said we’d need to fill out a form [link], show proof of ownership, and pay a $19 fee for the user decal (not sure what this is for / does, but it’s one of those required government bureaucracy fee things). We don’t have to pay an import duty (typically 1.5-2%) because the boat was built in the US.

If all goes well, we’ll be bringing it back this weekend. Here’s an approximate route we may follow: (we haven’t decided yet if we’re going through the San Juans via Friday Harbor or around them)

TripMap-SanJuans

TripMap-Seattle

Sale closed!

The sale is finally closed! It closed last Friday, and then we drove up to Vancouver over the weekend to do some prep work on it.

We had a list of 12 jobs or so, and only accomplished about half of them – everything takes longer than you think on a boat! But it was still pretty productive considering we only had a day (needed to get back for the Superbowl on Sunday).

Taking a break for lunch!

Taking a break for lunch!

Fresh bread, salami and smoked mozzarella from the Granville Island market.

Fresh bread, salami and smoked mozzarella from the Granville Island market.

Natalie tackled cleaning up the mold in the cabin lockers and galley cabinets, during which she swore “This is so gross!” multiple times. I scrubbed the deck which had probably months worth of dirt and moss on it.

We assembled the salon table, which needed to be installed since it was removed for more cabin space by the prior owner. It was more tricky than expected. First we discovered that the table used square recessed screws, which was the one tool we didn’t bring, so we had to make a run to the Canadian Home Depot. We also went to Canadian Tire to pick up an electric heater. Surprisingly Canadian Tire is not a tire store, it’s the Canadian equivalent of a Bed, Bath & Beyond. IMG_1458

We also attempted to go up the mast for an inspection, with Natalie hoisting me on the main halyard. This proved to be impossible because it was too hard to turn the winch with my weight on the line and just the halyard winch ratio. I’m looking into new options – probably ascenders since I already have climbing experience and all the other gear.

We also did a full inventory of the boat. It’s important to know where everything is and figure out what we already have for emergencies or repairs. There are a lot of spare parts on board since the owner prior to the prior one (from Yelm, Washington) had planned on going to the Philippines. Some of the spares are old and getting rusty, but some of them could come in handy.

Now we’re working on plans for transfering the boat back to Seattle.

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Survey and Sea-Trial of “Lone Star” in Vancouver

Last week I drove up to Vancouver for the survey and sea-trial of a C&C 38 Landfall named “Lone Star” that I’m working on buying.

Crossing the border with my NEXUS pass

Crossing the border with my NEXUS pass

This was only my second time seeing the boat, and in the first visit in December the deck had been covered with snow/ice. So I was a little nervous – would this still be the great boat I thought it was, and was the deck in decent shape now that I could see it uncovered?

Buying a boat is kind of like buying a house – you pick the one you want, and then wait a month or so, hoping you picked the right one and no deal-breakers arise.

Arriving at the boat on Granville Island, the owner was there to skipper during the sea-trial, which was excellent since he knows the boat best and could answer questions I had.

First we took it to be hauled out for the out of water survey (the in-water survey had been completed the week prior when I was sick with the flu).

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Trevor from Aegis Marine Surveys (partner of Tim, who was also at the in-water survey last week) did the survey, and did a tremendous job. I have a list of close to 40 things to fix now. But that’s what happens when you hire a good surveyor – the better the surveyor, the more issues they find. That can make it seem like you’re getting a worse boat – but no, you’re getting the same boat you would have gotten if you had hired a less thorough surveyor, but now you know about more of the issues instead of being in the dark. Knowing is always a good thing.

Next came the sea-trial. We took her out in a light rain, and were fortunate to find about 8 knots of wind out on the bay. She sailed well at a nice speed, and it was a pleasure to watch the huge genoa power up the boat.

Here’s a short video I made of the survey and sea-trial (switch to fullscreen and HD for better quality!):

I got the survey report later in the week. Most of the issues are minor things that I can fix myself. The more major things will need to be fixed at the next haul-out, which may not be till the Fall. The seacock backing plates have deteriorated / rotted and need to be replaced (may opt to replace all thru-hulls at that time). A sloppily plugged deck fill port needs to be redone to prevent leaking into the core. There are a few minor interior leaks that need to be fixed – in deck windows, deck penetrations, and a head hose. The engine survey also found a few issues, including soot in the oil analysis, which was concerning because it might be a sign that it’s burning oil.

The good news was there are no serious issues like hull or structure damage, the sails are in decent shape, and most of the systems are working.

Now there’s just a little bit more of waiting to do and then hopefully we’ll close the sale!

Touring Boats – The Ones that Didn’t Make the Cut

Starting in July we visited about a dozen boats, about 3/4 of those with Natalie along, gradually getting a better idea of what we were looking for.

The very first boat we visited was a 1978 Bristol 35.5 in Anacortes with Natalie’s friends Toriann and Mark along – we were on our way to a 5-day San Juans cruise on Seattle Sailing Club’s J/35c “Dolce Vita.” I kind of knew this boat wasn’t going to be in great shape but wanted to set a baseline. The boat was on the hard (this means it was on stands in a boatyard) and had lots of black mold/mildew inside on the hull walls. It also had some pretty ancient equipment – it felt like the 36-year-old boat it was, not like a boat that had been updated and refit. 7 months later this boat is still on the market, with a substantial price reduction (from 40k to 32.5k).

A very old autopilot control on the Bristol 35.5.

A very old autopilot control on the Bristol 35.5.

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A concerning crack in the paint on the rudder skeg - would have to hire a surveyor to tell whether this went through to structure.

A concerning crack in the paint on the rudder skeg – would have to hire a surveyor to tell whether this went through to structure.

Other boats visited:

  • Two Pacific Seacraft 34’s, a 1985 for $69k and a 1991 for $89k. These are well-built traditional cruisers, but they felt small inside, one had a teak deck (a money pit with no benefits), and they seemed pricey for what you got.
  • Two Tartan 37’s, a 1978 for 50k and a 1980 for 50k later reduced to 45k. The first one had jammer cleats – these are 1970’s rope clutches – they’re so old they’re worthy of being museum pieces. The second Tartan 37 had a rotted bulkhead.
    Rotted bulkhead in Tartan 37

    Rotted bulkhead in Tartan 37

    Jammer clutches

    Jammer clutches

  • 1986 Passport 37 for 119k. This is a beautiful boat on the interior – lots of well kept teak and storage space. The boat was loaded with all the bells and whistles of an offshore cruiser and had just finished two years in the south Pacific. But it was too expensive for my budget, and I didn’t think it worth nearly that price anyway – there were a few things that were less than ideal (teak side decks, a huge hard dodger that seriously blocked side deck access and took over the cockpit).

    Beautiful woodwork in the v-berth of the Passport 37

    Beautiful woodwork in the v-berth of the Passport 37

  • C&C 37 for 45k. This was actually pretty nice, although setup as more of a racer / coastal cruiser.
  • 1988 Ericson 34 for 47k. This boat is actually closer to 35’, and was in nice condition. It had no wood on deck which I liked, and would have good sailing performance. The specs are pretty similar to a Wauquiez Pretorien 35 actually. Interior sleeping accommodations were a tad on the small side. It wasn’t as cruiser ready as the C&C 38 Landfall we later looked at though, and the shallow anchor pan would be problematic.
The Ericson 34's anchor locker pan

The Ericson 34’s anchor locker pan

After looking at the Bristol 35.5, Pacific Seacraft 34’s, Tartan 37’s, and Passport 37, I started to realize these boats were a bit too traditional for my tastes. The Tartan 37 was the most modern probably, but the two located in Seattle were in bad shape – kind of project boats. Around this time I heard of the C&C 38 Landfall and started reading up on it – everything I heard was good and it sounded like a much better fit. More about that in an upcoming post…