College student Drew Maglio explains how he turned a $10,000 investment into a smart $17,000 speedboat.
As the maxim goes, wind and tide wait for no one and just outside of the breakwater exists another world. To some, boat ownership is insanity, as boats require constant maintenance and are always breaking.
But I would argue that few other activities afford such opportunity to transcend the humdrum of modern life.
I had just $2,000 when I set out with the dream of owning a bluewater yacht. It wasn’t an easy journey, and my fiancée and I learned some tough lessons along the way, but two years and three boats later we couldn’t have been happier with our 24ft motorcruiser. Here’s how it all began…
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Growing up sailing on the East Coast it’s fair to say that I caught the bug pretty early on. Family…
It’s a fact: getting afloat in a boat of your own has never been more affordable or accessible. Let me…
I was 10 years old when my parents sold their 21ft Chaparral 2100 SX bowrider, on which we’d cruised Florida’s East Coast. My thirst for adventures on the water, however, had not yet been quenched and two years later I bought an 8ft imitation Boston Whaler for $400 that I kept in my parents’ backyard.
That little bathtub was used in a typical Florida river – that is, nothing more than a man-made drainage canal. I rambled about in it for a few years, but it filled with rainwater and sank more often than it traversed the placid, often disgusting, brown waters of the canal.
When it was sold and towed away for more than I had initially paid, I was relieved. I’d made a small profit and my parents were ecstatic to no longer have it scarring their embankment. I was now boatless, but my longing to be out on the water persisted throughout my high school years.
Fast-forward to May 2014 and my fiancé, Avery, and I had just completed our first year of university in West Palm Beach, Florida. We were invited on a dinner cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
As the guests mingled, Avery and I stood at the bow peering into the glassy water. At that moment I knew I had to have a boat again. Somehow, some way we were going to own a boat.
The search begins
I searched the online adverts. Because of my motorboating experience as a child, I wanted an open bow boat with a sterndrive engine.
This wasn’t the wisest choice for Florida’s briny waters; sterndrives generally have raw-water cooled cast-iron engine blocks, which are susceptible to rust. Plus, they can’t fully trim up in shallow water.
However, I have to say that we’ve since had reliable sterndrives over the years. Nonetheless, while browsing the classifieds I found a bowrider that piqued my interest: a 1996 Regal Valanti SE 202.
We should have heard the faint last gasps of the dry-rotten and disintegrating vinyl. We should have noted the dark and rotten wood in the crazed ski locker, that we now know is a sign of catastrophic structural decay.
Similarly, the owner’s comment that ‘she needs A LOT of work,’ should have rang an alarm bell.
Nonetheless, the owners, who were ‘moving and had to sell their boat immediately’ demonstrated that, despite the ghastly outward appearance, the boat’s mechanical heart was operable.
On Saturday of that same week, we were now the accursed owners of someone else’s junk – and to make matters worse we’d paid $2,100 for the entire package!
Avery and I, plus a few helpful friends laboured all summer on that boat. I changed the oil, oil filter, spark plugs, replaced the exhaust manifolds and risers (which corrode quickly in warm salt water), replaced the circulating water pump which was defunct, and replaced the gear lube (which was milky) and impeller on the Alpha One Gen II outdrive.
Things that now take me minutes, took hours – even days – on our first go around, and blunders were inevitably made. By July, we were finally satisfied to attempt sea trials, and away we went to the boat ramp, buzzing head to toe with nervous excitement.
This was it: South Florida’s salty waters were to be the judge ofmy mechanical prowess.
Upon launching the boat, all systems checked out and the engine came to life. The gearstick was a bit sticky, but after fiddling with it we headed north to Jupiter, Florida, my old childhood haunt.
About halfway, we noticed that we were taking on water, but couldn’t be sure if it was coming from the engine, sea, or both.
There was a sheen in the bilge, but it could have easily been the byproduct of the many different types of fluids that were changed before our journey. It was minuscule, however; the bilge pump would easily keep up – or so we figured.
We proceeded for another mile before turning back to the boat ramp, where we hauled the boat out of the water and drained gallons of water from the bilge and ski locker.
It was apparent that the adhesive sealant I’d tried to smear between the transom assembly and transom had failed to do its job and that was the source of our leak.
I trailered the boat to my friend’s house so he could have a look and he jumped up and down on the outdrive, declaring it to be fine. “Tighten the inner transom plate bolts,” he insisted – an almost impossible task with the engine in place.
I contorted myself into the back of the engine bay to tighten the bolts – and when I did, the transom fibreglass skin cracked! At that moment I knew that we’d bought a worthless and rotten boat!
Wanted: Nice boat with dodgy engine!
I was extremely frustrated as I’d wasted months of labour and thousands of dollars! Avery, however, was more level-headed: “Why don’t we buy another boat with a bad engine and swap ours in?” she suggested.
“Eureka!” Thus began the search for a nice boat with a dodgy engine, across the entire south-eastern US. I wanted a Chaparral 2130 SS this time and found a nice one in rural Virginia with a kind owner who was willing to work with us.
However, whilst visiting family in Alabama, we took a look at another I’d seen online. The owner was cleaning her as we approached, and beneath the cocoon of diesel dust was glimmering and pristine gelcoat. The interior was even nicer, with pliable white vinyl and a beautiful turquoise carpet.
After thoroughly tapping all surfaces, I was certain this boat was solid as a rock. The owner, a kind woman who had recently been widowed, was asking $4,000. We offered $2,000 before eventually settling on $3,000 – but we would have been thrilled to pay full price!
The boat had been sitting inside a dry stack marina for 11 years without being touched! Our parents thoroughly rebuked us for our folly. “Didn’t you learn your lesson? Boats are nothing but trouble.”
Despite their admonishments we pressed on with the project. In just a week, we stripped the old Regal of its engine, outdrive and wakeboard tower but kept the trailer and stainless steel propeller, which were near-perfect matches for the new boat.
But instead of fitting the Regal engine, we sold it – together with the outdrive, transom assembly, wakeboard tower and the hull – for a grand total of $2,200 – meaning we’d made $100 on what was a terrible purchase!
Next step, after towing the Chaparral 10-hours home, was to test the ‘blown’ engine. Luck would have it that the old 5.7lt GM V8 and Yamaha sterndrive sputtered to life. What a jubilant moment.
Though the road to the boat ramp would be full of potholes, we seemed to have caught a break, if only for a minute!
Despite running, the engine was in dire need of an overhaul. It had never seen fresh water, and was a rust bucket.
Fortunately, I came across some anecdotal evidence to suggest GM cast iron engine blocks are extremely thick and take over 30 years to rust through.
Hopefully the ghastly appearance could be ameliorated with some elbow grease.
Over the next two months we overhauled the engine and replaced the battery, along with all rubber fuel lines, which were brittle after 20 years. I also added a battery switch and a second battery.
While the engine was partially disassembled, I scrubbed it with sand paper and degreaser before hosing it down.
We tried to start the boat using flush muffs to check everything was working before heading to the ramp. To my dismay, the engine would no longer start – despite having run the month before. Though it turned over, it wouldn’t fire up – even when dumping fresh fuel straight into the carburettor.
After some research, we determined the culprit was most likely the old Quadrajet carb and a rebuild kit was ordered. I commissioned a local auto mechanic to rebuild it over the course of a week, giving me time to do a much-needed deep clean.
The boat was now glimmering and begging to be taken to the water! Summer 2014 was now coming to a close and it was time to head to the water. The engine fired up and roared to life on the trailer.
Cautiously, we headed to the boat ramp and put the boat in the water. The engine idled smoothly and we felt comfortable enough to pull away from the boat ramp.
However, as we shifted into reverse, the engine died so we pushed off the dock before engaging forward gear. “A boat that only goes forward is not such a bad thing,” we remarked.
Though the precise details of our early voyages evade me, I do recall getting her on the plane a few times.
Unfortunately, slow zones on the ICW abound and, as we came off the plane, I remember vividly how we stalled for 30 minutes, eventually drifting to a private dock where I was able to get the engine restarted.
Back at the boat ramp our trim system stopped working causing us to drag the skeg on the concrete while retrieving the boat. In order to head home, we had to remove the trim ram and tie the outdrive to the boat’s cleats, a less than ideal solution.
Ironing out the kinks
Over the coming weeks and months, we gradually worked the kinks out of our boat by replacing the mechanical fuel pump, alternator and anti-siphon valve: a safety device to prevent fuel from emptying into the bilge in case a fuel line is severed.
The new fuel pump mitigated a periodic stalling and vapour lock condition that we experienced early on and the new anti-siphon valve alleviated a high-speed fuel starvation problem that had caused the engine to die upon crossing the 3,500rpm threshold.
With our problems resolved, our 1995 Chaparral proved to be a wonderful and reliable vessel that we enjoyed for a year and well over 100 hours of engine run time.
For the first time in my life, I was able to sate my yearning for the water. Avery and I spent every weekend on the water while spending weeknights doing maintenance and upgrades.
We added new speakers and stereo, LED lighting, chrome louvred vents, the stainless propeller from the first boat, smart tabs, a 4-bow 8ft Sunbrella bimini top and more.
We moved the boat to a river marina half an hour away where we snorkelled and explored the state parks. On cool winter nights we’d camp on board, using the convertible top and enclosure to shield us from the elements as we slept sprawled out on our back-to-back seats.
Sometimes we cruised on the ocean, following the line of the beach as we watched dolphins, rays and flying fish.
We grew more adventurous and borrowed my in-laws’ trailer so we could tow the boat to the Florida Keys, the 120-mile string of tropical islands south of Miami.
On the first trip, during spring break at university, we spent three nights at Coral Bay Resort on Lower Matecumbe Key, with the boat docked at their complementary marina. We visited nearby Indian Key and did an 80-mile round trip to Bahia Honda State Park.
While the 21ft boat generally handled well in the seas of coastal Florida, we felt it necessary to close off our open bow with a cover when heading a few miles offshore.
A few times we’d taken a small wave over the bow while at idle, which gave us a bit of a scare. Maybe it was time to upgrade to a new boat…
Boat number three
“Why can’t you just appreciate what you have?” said my inner voice. Avery didn’t want to upgrade boats again. She loved our Chaparral, but over the coming weeks I convinced her it was time for a larger, closed-bow cuddy cabin boat.
While we’d enjoyed exploring in our 21-footer, a bigger version that we could comfortably sleep on would save us the hefty fee of lodging in boutique hotels. And so the search began.
First, we looked at a Formula 252 cuddy cabin, but quickly recognised the signs of structural rot (which we’d encountered with our very first boat).
What we wanted was another Chaparral built with Greenwood XL pressure treated marine plywood that is rot resistant. Unlike many other builders, Chaparral began using the XL wood in the 90s before it was considered standard practice to do so.
Thus, we focused our search on finding a 24ft model – the big brother to our beloved boat, built between 1995 and 2001. While visiting family in Alabama again, we discovered a 1998 model 2335 SS with a 5.7lt Volvo Penta SX engine.
The boat was dirty and the mechanical systems somewhat neglected, so we tried to negotiate the price down – to no avail. One thing was clear, however: we’d found the model we wanted.
The vee-berth was large enough to accommodate my 6ft 2in frame and the hull was seaworthy with adequate freeboard and 22° of transom deadrise, necessary for slicing through coastal chop.
In early September 2015, we were able to sell our 2130 to a buyer who drove all the way from New York, impressed with the exquisite condition and our rigorous care.
Though we’d spent a few thousand in upgrades and repairs, we were able to sell our 1995 Chaparral 2130 SS – that we had paid a mere $3,000 for – for $11,200! With our pockets laden with cash, we were now ready to upgrade!
A month later we stumbled upon what would eventually be our next boat, a 1999 24ft Chaparral 2335 SS, located in Maryland, 15 hours away. If we wanted to buy it, we’d have to drive to pick it up or have it shipped via truck – a daunting and costly prospect.
Instead, two newly found friends from the Chaparral forum offered to help. One in Maryland offered to inspect the boat for us, while another from Massachusetts volunteered to pick it up and deliver the boat to Florida for us on his own trailer!
Without the interventions of those two generous individuals the purchase would have come to an abrupt halt. Theirs was a true reflection of the camaraderie among boating enthusiasts.
We paid $9,500 for Cheaper Than Kids, the rather facetious name of our new boat, and it was delivered to us in late October 2015.
While not displaying the glimmering vinyl and glossy gelcoat we’d grown accustomed to, she did have bright white vinyl seating and clean yet matted carpet.
The hull stripe was a rich navy blue that looked like it could be brought back with relative ease. The cabin was clean and free of odours and the pristine chrome gauges were set in a rich faux cherry wood panelling.
Best of all, the bilge was free of water and there was no discernible rot. The engine was in pristine cosmetic condition and, as per my friend’s report, ran well and displayed no red flags such as knocking, rattling, excessive smoke, or oil burn.
The Bravo 3 outdrive had a fair bit of surface corrosion, but otherwise checked out to my friend’s (admittedly untrained) eyes and ears. The story with this drive unit was that it had been rebuilt after a collision some years back, but we were optimistic that it would be trouble-free – which it proved to be.
The first law of boat ownership, I believe, is that you can expect to spend weeks or months making the new craft seaworthy! Cheaper than Kids was no different. We soon realised the amount of work was too great to leave her at the marina so we moved her to my in-laws’ farm.
The first task was to service the mechanical and electrical systems, replacing any suspect parts. Again we overhauled the engine, and since the transom assembly was disassembled, we primed and painted it after removing the surface corrosion.
Next, we greased the gimbal bearing and universal joints after ensuring that both freely articulated without any binding or rough spots.
Now it was time for some much-needed improvements. First to go was the old matted carpet, beneath which was a fully fibreglassed wooden floor with no deterioration – a testament to the longevity of XL wood.
After our last boat, we swore that we’d never have a carpeted deck again, so we installed faux teak vinyl flooring to the deck and swim platform. I must say that this was our favourite upgrade as it transformed our dated floor into something modern, practical, and stunning.
Next we added a new bluetooth stereo and speakers, so we could enjoy our reggae tunes without the clutter of cables, and upgraded our electronics. We ordered a canvas enclosure for overnighting, connected to a 4ft bimini top that came with the boat.
We added a large 8ft bimini to provide plenty of shade and protection from the tempestuous Florida elements, and to top off our weekend retreat, a small TV/DVD combination.
Once all of these upgrades were completed, I buffed my arms away to restore the gelcoat to its former glory.
The gimbal bearing is best tested with an engine alignment tool, but if you don’t have one, can be rotated by hand. To assure proper rotation in the U-joints, they must be manipulated and bent every which way by hand.
All of the driveshaft components must be clean of rust: an indicator of water intrusion. If neglected, the gimbal or U-joints may explode inside the rubber U-joint bellows, potentially destroying the transom assembly in the process.
I know of at least one instance where a boat began to sink due to a catastrophic failure of a U-joint.
Our greatest adventure
We made many day trips and a few overnight trips: one to Peck’s Lake and another some 60 miles south to Peanut Island.
While these trips were enjoyable, the novelty wore off and we grew tired of traversing the same waterways. We decided to head to the Keys again, only this time as liveaboards.
Not wanting to cook in the unrelenting summer heat, we installed a basic shore power system to run a portable air conditioner, which made our tiny cabin as frigid as a meat locker.
My friend dropped us off at a boat ramp in North Miami, where we embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives.
We’d planned to motor from Miami to Key West and back, stopping at many reefs along the way. It was an ambitious plan and we fell short of our goal, making it only about 150 miles to Big Pine Key, before heading back to Miami.
We spent a blissful seven days enjoying the stunning scenery, and at one point headed six miles offshore to Fowey Rocks Light, where we enjoyed a quick swim and lunch on the still, emerald waters.
We were the only boat there with the exception of a typical Miami superyacht that quickly grew bored and hustled away.
After lunch, we ran the 40 nautical miles to Key Largo’s John Pennekamp State Park, where we berthed for the night. Though the Miami skyline stubbornly persisted, it eventually faded away into the background, leaving us free at sea.
Biscayne National Park, one of three National Parks in South Florida, encompasses the islands between Miami and Key Largo.
Save for park facilities, these islands are completely undeveloped and infrequently travelled, allowing us a glimpse of rugged tropical wilderness.
During the first part of the trip, university friends James and Joe joined us for a day of free diving, where we explored the City of Washington wreck and witnessed elkhorn coral in the wild for the first time.
The highlight of our diving excursions occurred on the first day when, about an hour before dusk, we saw four massive spotted eagle rays glide majestically through the deep.
After such an exciting time with friends, the rest of the trip could not hope to compare, though it was memorable for other reasons…
The day after James and Joe left, Avery and I blasted to the Lower Keys in one afternoon where we tied up at Bahia Honda State Park for the night.
We jogged to the old Bahia Honda railway bridge, once a part of Henry Flagler’s ‘Railroad that Went to Sea,’ but now a rusting hulk from which to watch the sunset.
It was when we got back to the boat that the mosquito onslaught began. We will never forget that night! Alone in the park save for one other motor trawler and a handful of campers, we had few allies in our war against nature.
It was at that moment, we realised what early visitors to tropical Florida must have endured; we now understood why stranded sailors buried themselves in the sand at night.
Due to poor planning we had to shower at the park’s outdoor showers, while simultaneously attempting to fend off a squadron of kamikaze mosquitoes!
The reason the mosquitoes are so bad in natural areas of the Florida Keys is because they are not sprayed with pesticides – a double-edged sword.
Fortunately, we managed to borrow some insect repellent from the only other boat in the harbour, which kept the attackers at bay.
After a much-needed respite, we tried to head offshore to Looe Key but the wind and waves kicked up due to an incoming tropical system.
Instead we headed in the other direction to a tidal creek, but made a hasty escape (thanks to a few helpful souls) in the receding waters.
On the way back to Marathon, where we planned to berth for the night, our newly installed bimini top frame snapped in half at a faulty rivet. Lesson learned: never trust aluminium and plastic offshore – invest in stainless steel instead.
Despite these tribulations, we made it back to the dock safely for a night before heading back north to avoid the worst of the imminent tropical storm.
I remember it as if it was yesterday: watching the sea in all directions as it dissipated into a vast greyness, while rain misted against our newly purchased enclosure.
Under our moderate speed of 15 knots, our new chartplotter and depth finder proved equally valuable. We made it to Mangrove Marina, a well-known ‘hurricane hole’ in Tavernier.
While the wind and rain blasted the Keys over the next few days we napped and watched movies in our little cabin, content as ever, venturing out only to eat at a gourmet French cafe.
All in all, our Keys trip of 2016 made us fall in love with the idea of a permanent cruising lifestyle.
Last Keys adventures
In the summer of 2016 I went to England for a month to study at Oxford, then took a family road trip in Europe. When I finally returned to Cheaper than Kids I was jubilant. Europe had been full of extraordinary experiences, but I have salt in my veins and needed my fix.
Avery and I trailered the boat down to John Pennekamp State Park so we could spend all five days in the Keys, diving at a different reef each day. We had a ball!
Sadly, when we towed the boat back to Riverwatch Marina in Stuart, the area was in the midst of a ‘lost summer’ due to an algal pestilence that has been growing in recent years.
A month later, we moved Cheaper than Kids to Pilot House Marina in Key Largo where she sat on a dry-rack.
Pilot House, a quintessential Keys hideout, had a complementary slipway, air conditioned showers and an on-site tiki bar and restaurant!
Towards the end of 2016 we spent nearly every weekend aboard our boat in the Keys, diving by day and relaxing at night.
Hindsight is, as is commonly said, 20/20: while we should have been content to enjoy our boat forever, contentment is not one of our chief virtues.
We had ambitions beyond the mainland Florida Keys and, full of folly, we listed our 2335 for sale, having set our sights on longer trips to the Bahamas and Dry Tortugas.
We sold the 2335 for $17,000 and began shopping for a larger power cruiser. Little did we know that, with our next purchase, we’d be opening yet another whole new can of worms, but that’s another story for another time.
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This feature appeared in the August 2019 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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